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Total Immersion

Faced with the extinction of their language, the Northern Arapaho have opened a language immersion school, reports The New York Times. Only about 200 of the almost 9000-member Wyoming Native American tribe are fluent speakers of their language and none is younger than 55.

The Arapaho Language Lodge, now serving 22 students in pre-kindergarten through 1st grade, plans to add classes annually as students graduate. The school's sponsors hope it will help generate interest in Northern Arapaho traditions. The tribe's low fluency is influenced by more than a century of U.S. Native American policy that attempted to “Americanize” native tribes by devaluing their languages and cultures.

Tribal officials hope the school will improve life on Wind River Indian Reservation, enhance cultural pride, and community participation. Currently, the tribe is combating a 78 percent unemployment rate among household heads and a 52 percent dropout rate among students.

The idea of an immersion school was spurred by Helen Cedar Tree, the tribe's oldest living member at 96, who criticized the council of elders for not promoting the Arapaho language among younger members. “She said, ‘Look at all of you guys talking English, and you know your own language. It’s like the white man has conquered us,’” Gerald Redman Sr., chairman of the council of elders, told the Times. “It was a wake-up call.”

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