June 16e FPK/BTA (Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association) presented an introduction to the Arapaho language with Professor Andrew Cowell, University of Colorado.
Cowell is chair of the linguistics department at the University of Colorado. One of his main research interests is the native languages of the western United States, and he directs the Center for the Study of Native Languages of the West (CSILW). He has published extensively on Arapaho and also works on Gros Ventre, Arapaho and Miwok.
Wayne C’Hair, a member of the Northern Arapaho Language and Culture Commission, was unable to attend the program, but told Arapaho’s story of the origin of Devils Tower and the constellation Ursa Major via a previously recorded video.
Cowell spoke of the Arapaho and Cheyenne languages, which are considered Algonquian languages, related to Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwe, Delaware and several others.
He also mentioned that the Shoshone and Ute language was actually a branch of the larger Uto-Aztec language family, and that the Shoshone and Ute are actually related to the Aztecs. Much research is being done to understand how the native tribes ended up where they are. There is great controversy about the Aztecs, whether the Utes came north or the Aztecs went south.
He said that unlike Europe, where one language family predominates, in North America there were dozens of different language families and more linguistic diversity than in all of Europe.
He said the Lakota language is a completely different language family, unrelated to the other two. He talked about how to pronounce some of the Arapaho words and how difficult it is to learn the language because it is so different from English. In response to a question about Sacajawea and how she was able to talk to Lewis and Clark on the expedition,
“You can understand how there could be some confusion there.”
He said that if one does not grow up learning a language like this, it is very difficult to learn it. It is difficult to translate from Arapaho to English because the Arapaho language often does not have a word for something like the English language does.
He wanted to point out that many Native American languages are disappearing.
Cowell talked about the link between language and culture. “I think language and culture are infinitely connected, and people are interested in how language shows culture.” Many people think the Arapaho was primarily a plains tribe, but they also had names for several mountains and other areas of Colorado.
Cowell said: “It proves that the Arapaho territory was much larger than the plains. They must have spent a lot of time in the mountains to come up with names for those areas that you can’t see from the plains. Linguistic research helps demonstrate social and cultural history, geography and landscape.
In addition to several mountain names, they also have a name for a lynx and a wolverine, so the Arapaho must have had interactions with these animals. The Cheyenne were not a hill tribe and they had no word for either.
He added that many rivers still bear the English translation of Native American names, such as Tongue River and Goose Creek. The rivers were travel corridors and everyone used them so the names were shared with other tribes. Cities would be named after the rivers they were on. Peaks were used as guides, and they could name them, but most tribes did not name all mountain ranges.
He said that a fort was a “soldiers’ house” and that Fort Fetterman was called “Stingy House” because the soldiers there had a bad reputation among the Indians for not having much trade goods.
He said these languages can be eloquent and sophisticated and were in no way primitive. He recited an Arapaho poem and mentioned that in Arapaho four is a sacred number and everything is done in fours. This is another reason why language is more than a language but is tied to culture and prayer reflects the Arapaho worldview. As one line in the poem says, “(We ask for good) thoughts, a (good) heart, love, and a joyful life.”
This is one of the reasons why the elders of the tribes do not want the language to be lost.