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FLC Summer Institute Sparks Lifelong Passion for Native Language Revival

FLC Summer Institute Sparks Lifelong Passion for Native Language Revival

This year, 20 FLC students participated in All Our Kin Collective Summer Institute, a two-week program promoting excitement and love for Native Languages.

DURANGO, Colo. — This past Mother's Day, Fort Lewis College junior Jeremy Zimmerman expressed his love to his mom in Navajo for the first time.

All Our Kin Collective Summer Institute participants"I told her 'Ayóó'ánííníshní,' which means 'I love you,' and 'Amá bééhánííh,' meaning 'Happy Mother's Day,'" said Zimmerman, a sociology major.

Zimmerman was among 20 participants in this year’s All Our Kin Collective Summer Institute, launched two years ago to address language loss. This year, students learned Diné, Ute, and Lakota with the help of two instructors and 10 volunteers.

“It was a great experience and made me want to excel more. Learning Navajo for the love of it is the best way to learn,” Zimmerman said. “I wanted to be able to talk to my mom in Navajo, and I did.”

This year, the program included morning classes and afternoon community-building sessions, a hike, and a visit to the Old Fort, where students participated in the traditional Blue Corn Blessing with Southern Ute healer Hanley Frost and Diné scientist Brandon Francis.

Students were divided in three groups —each one focusing on one of the three Native languages Diné, Ute and Lakota— and created projects to build community and enthusiasm for learning them.

Janine Fitzgerald, who started the program two years ago, said since the beginning, she and collaborators Rachael Nez and Ally Gee have had one key goal in mind: figuring out how to teach the language outside the classroom and helping students understand that language acquisition is a life-long journey.

“How can we create an environment where we’re using school but at the same time students understand that it’s on them, in a positive, joyful, exciting way? That it is a journey and that full immersion in the language—depending on the language— might not be feasible?”

“Our goal was never fluency,” added Ally Gee, the project’s support specialist. “Our goal was to build excitement around languages, encouraging students to not focus so much on fluency but focusing on finding joy in their language and finding a deeper meaning outside being a fluent speaker.”

Judging by the students' enthusiasm for their native languages, this year's program was a success.

Reviving Ute Memories

Take, for example, DeAndra Eaglefeather, a junior majoring in sociology with a minor in criminology and pre-law. She was in the Ute language group working with 10 elders from the Southwest Indigenous Language Development Institute (SILDI).

During the two weeks, the elders shared their knowledge of culture, history, and connections. Students learned about Ute culture and celebrations, such as the Bear Dance, heard creation stories passed down through generations, learned about traditional baby cradleboards, and heard about the impact of the Meeker Massacre on Utes.

Eaglefeather recalled an elder teaching them words that brought back childhood memories.

“Just like that, an old nursery rhyme run popped up in my head. And I was like, ‘I remember!’,” she said, adding that an instructor helped her put together the words for the song. "That was really cool; I feel like I learned a lot,” she said.

Teaching Navajo to young children

Senior Terri Lynn Scott, an early childhood education major, enjoyed taking part in the Diné class. Her group created a three-part video using fun music and Navajo-themed imagery to teach Navajo to children ages 4-7. The videos addressed issues like community, meaning and family.

“‘K’E’ can mean family, friend, or teacher,” a male voice says in the animated video. “K’E is the feeling of being together and connected. Let’s sing a song about K’E,” he continues before a song starts playing.

“We wanted to make Navajo more relevant,” Scott said. “The experience was great for my future teaching career. The fluency doesn’t matter as much as using and practicing the language.”

A Lifelong Journey to learn Lakota

Tipiziwin Tolman, a doctoral student at Washington State University and the Lakota teacher for the program, is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

She said her passion for learning Lakota comes from her family history. Her great-grandparents were Winter Count Keepers, traditional historians of the Lakota people.

“I grew up around my grandfather, who was a native speaker. My community still retains many phrases and words, and I’ve been on a lifelong journey to learn my language. This journey has motivated me to work on the Winter Count, which my great-grandparents documented in our language,” Tolman said.

“Learning my language has allowed me to read the stories my ancestors left behind. I often reflect on their visionary thinking to write these things down using new technologies available to them, like pencils and pens. They leveraged these tools for the benefit of our community.”

Inspiring Commitment

Eaglefeather said hearing from instructors about their own language journeys was eye-opening.

“It takes a lot of commitment to keep learning, and I didn’t realize the full scope until this program,” Eaglefeather said. “Hearing our teachers’ stories made me realize that this is a lifelong journey requiring continuous learning and practice.”

Zimmerman agreed, emphasizing the program’s goal of fostering enthusiasm for languages.

“The idea isn’t to make you fluent in two weeks but to raise your enthusiasm about languages. It’s not just about memorizing words; it’s about creating content and getting young children excited about learning the language,” he said.

To learn more about the program, visit the All Our Kin Collective's website.

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