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Arts & Life

A language awakening: Dylan Running Crane, Sean Chandler, and Indigenous language revitalization

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Sean Chandler (left) and Dylan Running Crane (right).

As part of the 2022 StoryCorps mobile tour, digital engagement specialist at the Missoula Art Museum (MAM) and Amskapi Piikani musician Dylan Running Crane speaks with Aaniiih painter Sean Chandler, who’s first solo exhibition in Montana was “The One Defined to Be No One” at the MAM.

Dylan Running Crane: We have Blackfeet language classes from the time that we’re young, up into high school, but by then, they kind of turn into cultural classes and stuff—in Browning. And I must have been, like, in elementary school... At some point, somebody had, like, explained to me... Some elder had explained to me that the reason why language revitalization or saving our language is important is that there are concepts that exist within the Blackfeet language that don’t exist anywhere else, and as soon as those words go away, they’re gone forever, and those concepts are gone forever.

And it just, it sort of, like, blows your mind to think about how many Indigenous languages like exist on, like, the North America landmass alone, and how many different concepts and ideas and ways of viewing the world exist that are at risk of being lost, or already lost, you know?

Sean Chandler: Yeah.

Dylan Running Crane: Is there anything from your tribe, like through the language, that you, or your worldview has changed through learning that language?

Sean Chandler: I believe so. I’ve been—I’ve seen it. I've seen it more naturally in younger people. You know, since I’m a second language learner, you know, it’s not natural for me. Like, say, my grandparents or even my dad, I think, which he knows some [Aaniiih] language: they have that... Those elders, they had that natural thing, whatever that is, that when they say a certain phrase, or word, or a story in the language, there’s some kind of natural feeling, or even laughter, in there.

For me, to learn that same—to try to figure out the humor in, say, let’s say a story, that was taught in language, it would be hard for me to naturally, you know, have those feelings. And it bugged me for a long time, like, Oh, well, I’ll probably never have... I don’t know if I’ll ever have that. Because I’ll always still be translating in my mind with this, you know, from Aaniiih to English, [from] English to Aaniiih. But I’ve seen it in the younger people that we’ve taught in our school. When they say some words—and it’s funny, it’s funny—I see them naturally laugh. So it’s, it’s not that’s not lost. I was worried about that.

But I saw it in younger people, and I saw them... Not just that, but I saw them naturally be themselves, do better in their other coursework, and their other schoolwork, besides just the language. It’s because they know themselves and whatever that language did to them, it strengthened who they were, who they are, and probably awakened that philosophy and those those things you mentioned.

The 2022 StoryCorps mobile tour is recording at the Missoula Public Library, giving Missoulians the opportunity to preserve their conversations and stories for future generations. StoryCorps Missoula is brought to you in part by Clearwater Credit Union, Partners Creative, and Montana State Fund.

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