Blackfoot in the News.

Last month I posted about Lily Gladstone’s relationship to Blackfoot (her father is of Blackfeet and Nez Perce ancestry); I’ve just been enjoying Nora Mabie’s story “‘Bigger than the Oscars’: Blackfeet Nation honors Lily Gladstone with stand-up headdress” (with some glorious photos), and when I got to the end I discovered it was followed by a separate piece by Mabie, “Gladstone brought the Blackfoot language to the world stage,” that begins:

ōk̇ii niiksōk̇ōw´aiks nitṫǎanikk̇oō ṗiiṫǎak̇ii (no)mō˝ṫoōṫoō siksik̇aitsiitṫǔṗii… niṫtsiik̇ǎak̇ōmimm.

“Hello my relatives, my name is Eagle Woman. I arrived here from the Blackfoot Confederacy. … I love y’all!”

That’s what Blackfeet Actress Lily Gladstone said in her Golden Globes acceptance speech — first in Blackfoot and then in English — when she made history as the first Indigenous woman to win best actress.

Robert Hall, director of Blackfeet studies at Browning Public Schools, said when Gladstone spoke Blackfoot on the world stage, two things happened. Some Blackfeet individuals watched the show live and translated Gladstone’s words to their families. Other community members, Hall said, watched and didn’t know what Gladstone said. Later, they felt inspired to learn and translate her words.

“That’s powerful, too,” he explained.

And there’s an interesting passage on consistent spelling:

Hall has a document with thousands of Blackfoot words and counting. In it, he breaks the words down, color coding their syntactic structures. Prior to this work, Hall said it was common practice for people to spell Blackfoot words however they wanted.

“Reading and writing was introduced to us in a violent way — through boarding schools and treaties,” Hall explained. “So we don’t have the greatest trust in reading and writing. And a lot of us think that it’s a “white man’s” way. … We’ll say, ‘We don’t need that white way — spell it the way you want.’”

But Hall argues that this methodology not only does a disservice to language learners but also undermines the integrity of the language itself. “Can you imagine reading a book and the same word is spelled different on each page?” he asked.

Hall said “Piikani,” a word referring to a band within the Blackfoot Confederacy, for example, has been phonetically spelled: “Bee-gun-knee.” But the silent “k” in “knee,” Hall says, exposes how English can infiltrate a Native language. “When you read this, now you’re using the English part of your brain,” he explained.

Tanner Ironpipe, a senior at Browning High School, said when he first started learning Blackfoot, he was taught to focus on phonetics — paying more attention to how words sound than how they are spelled. Now, he helps Hall develop this new rubric, focusing on spelling and word structure.

“We need a writing system,” the 17-year-old student said. “In fourth and fifth grade, I just memorized words. Now I understand how the language is built. This is important. This is our main way we can express our own culture.”

My copyeditor brain, of course, appreciates consistency.

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t understand this. There’s a perfectly good grammar of Blackfoot, now in its third edition, by Donald Frantz, specifically written so as to be accessible to non-linguists too, and an extensive dictionary. Both of these were developed with the help of many L1 speakers.

    The orthography is as phonemic as you could wish, and is really straightforward.

    But I suppose none of that makes a cute story. I suspect there is some Blackfoot-internal politics at the back of this (I gather that language maintainance is often a highly politicised issue with North American languages, understandably enough, but often to the detriment of actual effectiveness.)

    [I remember reading of some Shawnee elders who said outright that they would rather that the language die than that any Long Knives should learn it.]

  2. I second David Eddyshaw’s remark on Donald Frantz’s grammar of Blackfoot, which is indeed thorough and user-friendly (NOT something you often find when it comes to grammars on indigenous languages of North America). I also agree that the spelling used is excellent.

    But as a Summer Institute of Linguistics missionary, well, perhaps his existence (and -even worse- undeniable competence as a linguist) is now deemed inconvenient by certain indigenous activists, all too many of whom appear to be under the odd delusion that the novel “1984” is a how-to guide instead of a cautionary tale.

    Their sad ignorance of their own history is best indicated by the statement “Reading and writing was introduced to us in a violent way — through boarding schools and treaties”. Err, no, the first literate people Blackfoot speakers encountered were (French-speaking, possibly Métis) fur traders (and the occasional missionary), LONG before treaties and boarding schools became a reality.

  3. Huh. Well, that’s a fine how-d’ye-do. I hate messy situations like that!

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    I have a copy of a grammar of another Algonquian language where the introduction says that morpheme-level analyses were excluded in the examples at the request of (some of) the speakers, because they thought it would lead to “intellectual mining of aboriginal languages and cultures.”

    Up until the 1930s, the Koasati used to respond to requests from outsiders to learn their language by teaching them Mobilian Trade Jargon. That seems to be a neater solution …

  5. morpheme-level analyses were excluded in the examples at the request of (some of) the speakers, because they thought it would lead to “intellectual mining of aboriginal languages and cultures.”

    I just have no patience for that mentality, although I understand the suspicion from which it arises. I’d make a lousy present-day anthropologist.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    I strongly suspect that the attitude correlates well with the language being critically endangered: as I was saying not long ago, the idea that the value of your language is primarily as a priceless cultural artefact (and thus subject to being stolen), rather than the way you live your daily life, is very likely a symptom of fairly imminent language death.

    Unfortunately, it’s also a pretty good way of helping the language to die, by cutting yourself off from possible outside expert help and inculcating highly unrealistic notions of how to maintain your language.

    Having said that, it’s a very understandable attitude – in this context, anyhow.

  7. David Marjanović says

    Mobilian Trade Jargon

    That’s an O(S)V auxlang, BTW.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    If Frantz’s proposed spelling system has, for whatever reasons, not found favor in actual use by those who actually use the language and no standardized alternative spelling system has in recent times been consistently used, then the field seems open for standardization/harmonization as proposed by those whose suggestions might be found congenial by those who use the language.

    Note also that while Frantz was born and raised in the U.S. he spent much of his later academic career in Canada and according to a comment on a prior thread followed the Albertan convention of using “Blackfoots” as the plural rather than the Montanan convention of using “Blackfeets.” https://languagehat.com/siksimiisii/#comment-4578145

    Maybe the folks in charge of language preservation on the Alberta side of the border find his orthography more congenial?

  9. And for those who don’t like alphabet imperialism, there is a syllabic system for Blackfoot. But unlike the syllabic system for Cree, which seems to be in use everywhere, the Latin alphabet remained popular for Blackfoot. I’ve wondered how it was that Cree syllabics took off and Blackfoot syllabics didn’t.

  10. “Blackfoots” … “Blackfeets.”

    a propos only of the dueling / parallel conventions, i just read an essay in which gore vidal talks about what he calls his “feetnotehood” in the history of aviation (the first child to fly cross-country, at 4; youngest pilot, at 10*). uncle gore often does plurals of compounds that way in his essays, i assume out of conscious warfare with editors, proofreaders, and prescriptivists.**

    .
    * flying solo (but technically accompanied, for legal reasons, by another non-pilot in the rear seat), as a – rather high-stakes – media event demonstrating the ease of use of a plane that was part of his father’s plan, as director of the bureau of air commerce, to make personal “flivver planes” as ubiquitous as cars.

    ** i also assume he wrote about it somewhere; i further assume he was nowhere near as compelling as andrea dworkin in her “The Great Punctuation Typography Struggle”.

  11. Here’s an article about Robert Hall, more extensive and nuanced than the brief quotes in the Gladstone article.

    There’s some information about the Big Bull writing system here. Unfortunately, it looks like only the vowel page is working. You can figure out some of the rest from the examples. There’s creaky voice and tones to deal with. I am not sure if it’s a phonemic or phonetic system.

    I noticed that in the example for ǒ, ǒt•ṫoōmiiṫǎamm ‘his/her dog’, the two tokens are different: the second one has a [w] in the beginning. That’s an example of one reason why I am leery of standardized spelling in this kind of situation.

    BTW: “•”?? Ugh.

  12. David Marjanović says

    “Can you imagine reading a book and the same word is spelled different on each page?”

    Here’s a book where the same word is always spelled different if it occurs twice in the same line. I really don’t recommend imitating that, though.

    I’ve wondered how it was that Cree syllabics took off and Blackfoot syllabics didn’t.

    Part of the reason might be the tones – called “pitch accent” in the Wikipedia article, but if each word has at least one high pitch, I’d rather call that a (somewhat restricted) tone system – and the consonant length, which is apparently phonemic even in consonant clusters such as -pss-. Cree has none of that, and Inuktitut has long consonants only between vowels.

    I am not sure if it’s a phonemic or phonetic system.

    Definitely phonetic, judging from the much simpler system in the Wikipedia article and the amount of allophony explained there.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    Here’s an article about Robert Hall

    “Collecting all of the old dictionaries he could get his hands on”

    but not

    https://www.amazon.com/Blackfoot-Dictionary-Stems-Roots-Affixes/dp/1487520638

    apparently.
    I presume that Frantz and Russell are simply unpersons. It seems a bit surreal. (In fact, if Hall actually is ignoring their work, as opposed to being remarkably uninformed about directly relevant scholarship, the adjective I want is “pathological.” Perhaps I’m being unfair: maybe he did use it, but felt it unnecessary to burden the journalist with confusing facts. Or maybe it’s actually the journo’s fault: always a good default assumption in reports on linguistic matters.)

  14. DE: I looked at Frantz’s grammar and yes, there are three phonemic vowel qualities plus length, and pitch accent. He doesn’t say anything about glottalization.

    I suspect that as more people learn and internalize the language, the Big Bull writing system will keep simplifying, though maybe not quite down to the compactness of the Frantz system.

    Why do you think he didn’t get the Frantz dictionary? If I were learning a poorly documented language, I certainly would get all the old dictionaries, even if there were a comprehensive modern one.

  15. A review in IJAL of the third edition of Frantz’s Grammar by Rosella Many Bears of the Kainai Board of Education indicated (final paragraph) that even as user-friendly as it is, it might still presume too much linguistics background for easy use by native educators. Of course, we don’t know what all lies behind this relatively mild dismissal.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    True: I was leaping to conclusions from the fact that it’s not mentioned in the articles; it may well have been the journalists rather than Hall who wanted to make it a story about Indigenous people rescuing their own language and felt that mentioning the fact that there was a whole lot of modern grammatical and lexical work already might spoil the effect being aimed for.

    Myself, I think Frantz’s grammar almost certainly is too complex for non-linguists (it’s easy for us Hatters to misjudge such things.) It’s very far from being a paedagogocal grammar, too. I doubt whether it’s really possible to write a grammar that satisfactorily meets the needs of ordinary learners and academic linguists. One should go for just one or the other.

    The academic-linguist-orientated one is a lot easier. Writing a good language-leariing textbook is hard, all the more so when the language is so very different from anything the learner is actually familiar with.

    Ashton’s Swahili grammar is the nearest thing I’ve seen to squaring this particular circle. (I think: but in fact, I’ve only ever used it for reference, myself, and online reviews from people who’ve actually tried to learn Swahili from it suggest they found it pretty hard going.)

  17. January First-of-May says

    Can you imagine reading a book and the same word is spelled different on each page?

    About a decade ago, while trying to figure out William the Conqueror’s equal-primogeniture heir, I had the pleasure of reading [a Google Books edition of] Pierre de Sainct-Julien’s Meslanges historiques (1590), which appeared (and did in fact turn out) to have useful-to-me information on the genealogy of the Toulongeon noble family.

    My university French was at the time still in good enough condition for me to understand what was going on (and I liked the book’s introduction chapter, though I no longer recall what exactly it was about), but I did find it somewhat inconvenient how the relevant article kept finding creative ways to spell “Toulongeon”. I think I found about a dozen different variants in less than four pages.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t have time to google it up right now, but somewhere on the internet is what I presume is an accurate transcription of the Last Will and Testament of a 17th century ancestor of mine (Massachusetts Bay colony) in which the family surname is spelled three or four different ways over the course of a short document. And it weren’t no exotic name like “Toulongeon.” (The original must have been handwritten but I don’t know whether it was in his own hand or that of a professional scrivener. But you can’t blame the typesetters because none were involved.)

  19. William Big Bull talks about the writing system here. I listened to some of it. Although the misuse of linguistic terms makes me cringe a bit, I think I see what he is trying to achieve, and it’s not just a matter of indigeneity as a political principle.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Can you imagine reading a book and the same word is spelled different on each page?

    Well, yes. Anything premodern, really. Certainly anything at all in Middle Welsh.

    The 1976 Kusaal New Testament, much the longest text in Kusaal until the whole Bible came out in 2016, has strikingly inconsistent spelling (the 2016 version has regularised it, doubtless helped by modern word-processing facilities.) Mind you, I’m not sure if that quite counts as an example: reading and writing (as opposed to speaking) Kusaal has always been a fairly niche activity. “Literate”, locally, usually means “literate in English” (or French.)

    The Kusaal version of the Ghana Ministry of Education’s newspaper Tampana (I’ve got a copy from 1992) has spelling which is all over the place (and several articles seem to have been composed by somebody who actually spoke the Toende dialect, and didn’t transpose it into the Ghana-literary-standard Agolle dialect very well.) Still, presumably somebody must have been able to read it (other than me and the journalists who wrote it.) People actually paid for it, after all …

  21. Their sad ignorance of their own history is best indicated by the statement “Reading and writing was introduced to us in a violent way — through boarding schools and treaties”. Err, no, the first literate people Blackfoot speakers encountered were (French-speaking, possibly Métis) fur traders (and the occasional missionary), LONG before treaties and boarding schools became a reality.

    Did they learn to read and write from fur traders and pre-treaty missionaries, though? Even if a few of them did, it’s easy to imagine that most speakers were introduced to literacy only much later.

    That reminds me – I recently came across a wonderful little novel of Indian boarding school life by an Omaha ethnologist who actually lived it back in the late 1800s, Francis La Flesche: The Middle Five: Indian Boys at School.

  22. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I gather that language maintainance is often a highly politicised issue with North American languages, understandably enough, but often to the detriment of actual effectiveness

    Not just North American languages. One of the few times in my life when I’ve had any sympathy with Microsoft, and the designers of Word (a horrible program), was in 2006 or so when they decided that the world needed a Mapudungun version of Word. By chance I happened to be in Valdivia at the time, close to Mapudungun-speaking areas, and I read about the dispute in the Diario Austral, a local newspaper. There is a reasonable account here:

    http://blog.debitage.net/2006/12/who-owns-language.html

    though the author is more sympathetic to the objectors’ cause than I would be. In particular he says that “the Mapuche were not consulted directly by Microsoft”, but I find that misleading. Microsoft found that there was a bitter argument between different Mapuche groups about the orthography, and decided to follow the views of the clear majority. A minority group of Mapuches took Microsoft to court about this. I don’t know what the present situation is.

    I also don’t know if Word is available in Quechua, Aymara, Guaraní, Arhuaco, etc. Guaraní would be a good example to study, because it’s in a far healthier state than the others mentioned, with official status in Paraguay and spoken by a large part of the population. (My experience of Paraguay is minimal, just fifteen minutes on the Paraguayan side of the line separating it from Brazil at the power station at Itaipú — possibly the least typical part of the country that one could choose.)

  23. David Marjanović says

    Or maybe it’s actually the journo’s fault: always a good default assumption in reports on linguistic matters.

    Always a good default assumption in reports on anything anywhere near science!

  24. David Marjanović says

    A review in IJAL of the third edition of Frantz’s Grammar by Rosella Many Bears of the Kainai Board of Education

    I just read the whole thing; it sounds like the book could be fairly easily improved to achieve what it wants. Adding an answer key to the exercises would definitely help!

    Also, Rosella Many Bears is the second of the two authors of the review; the first is a linguist.

  25. In the article ‘Her Dream: Blackfeet Women’s Stand-Up Headdresses’ (p. 7ff here), Blackfeet scholar Rosalyn LaPier gives the Blackfoot name of the Women’s Stand-up Headdress Society as Kaa-poi-saam-iksi. I tried to understand how this word was built using the online Blackfoot dictionary, but I didn’t succeed (kaa- ‘?’ + poi- ‘?’ (cf. poisstámmaan ‘ornament of a headdress (e.g. father)’) + saaám ‘headdress’ + -iksi animate plural affix?). However, LaPier also has an article (available here) that appears in Social Text online (yes, that Social Text) in which she appears to use kaapoisaamiiksi as the word for the headdress itself. So now I am confused.

  26. LaPier put together a vocabulary of culture terms, linked from her website. Unfortunately she parses only some of the terms, not including Poisstámmaan (p. 19).

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