This profile of the Chippewa Cree Tribe’s Department of Indian Education follows from interviews I conducted with the three named individuals, along with my experiences and observations over the 14 months of my engagement with them as they sought to initiate programming and conversation to revitalize their community’s Indigenous languages and culture.
In the fall of 2021 I answered a call at work that fundamentally altered what “work” would mean to me from then on. It was Jay Eagleman calling from the Rocky Boy Reservation, wanting to know what the Montana Digital Academy was doing for Indigenous language instruction, and directing me to join a video call with him and others from the Chippewa Cree Tribe Department of Indian Education. I did not know anything about Jay or his office yet, but that was about to change.
Over the next year-plus, I became very familiar with Jay and his counterparts, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy and data analyst Mike Geboe. I learned about their commitment to language preservation and their approach to the world around them. Jay, Jonathan and Mike, whom I called the J Crew due to the J, J, and soft G in their names, brought an agenda, both personal and community-based, that percolated through every action they took. They focused all of their efforts on preserving their language and culture.
Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?
I first heard this line from the J Crew on a Wednesday evening sometime in late 2021, not too long after that phone call. They were offering a zoom-based course in the Neyio (Cree) language, and Jay used this theme to guide the course. I was starting to build the Neyio language course with them for the Digital Academy and I felt it would be helpful and polite to attend these classes. Jay and Mike struggled to make the zoom work well for them, as people were always talking over each other and Jay’s instruction. The laptop camera sometimes sat too far from the board to see the words he wrote, and occasionally the audio was too quiet.
But their focus, “Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?” underpinned the cultural aspects of the course, challenging participants to think more deeply about themselves and their learning.
Jonathan later told me his operating principle as a strategist is very similar: “Know where you come from, know where you are, and know where you’re going.” In retrospect it makes perfect sense as a paradigm for the J Crew’s work in language revitalization, because of the cultural component, the sense of loss, and the need for hope.
Know Where You Come From
Jay envisioned lighting a fire in community members to learn both Neyio and Ojibwe, the languages of the two tribes there at Rocky Boy. He told me a collaboration between Jonathan and himself had started as a conversation about how to focus on language revitalization. “We had been working together as I was a Neyio teacher at Box Elder school…we worked to establish a department that would focus on Ojibwe/Neyio language revitalization. When the ARPA dollars became available, Jonathan was quick to insert a proposal to the Chippewa Cree Tribe that gave more life to the department. In December 2021, the tribe recognized officially the Department of Indian Education (DOIE) and funded it. The whole purpose of that award was to create language revitalization opportunities.”
Representative Windy Boy has worked for years as a state senator, then state representative elected by his community, to support language preservation efforts, as many heritage languages worldwide are endangered, including his. He has been a strategist whose tactics are not always popular, but who achieves results. What guides his work in the Legislature? “Whenever I make decisions, the first ones that come to mind is my grandkids. What I’m doing or going to do, how is it going to impact my personal future generation? Now I have a great granddaughter,” he told me, and that’s who is foremost in his mind when he presents bills increasing accountability for Indian Education for All, or providing funding for the Montana Indian Languages Program (MILP). Jonathan offered, “Just because I see the things the way I do doesn’t mean everybody does.” He said that he’ll be the first one to admit when he’s been wrong.
I witnessed this firsthand, as his push for the Digital Academy to offer courses in Indigenous languages was somewhat misinformed. He later confessed he didn’t clearly understand what MTDA did and thought we could provide technical assistance to other entities wanting to offer courses. By that time we had already generated a whole semester class in Neyio,so it was a safe admission, yet still demonstrated his willingness to admit a mistake.
“Whenever I make decisions, the first ones that come to mind is my grandkids.”
Jonathan said he comes by his strategic mind naturally. “My great grandpa was a war strategist all the way up in northern Canada for Big Bear, and I think that trait of being a strategist is what I inherited.” In pursuing a goal he often doubles down on his determination. With legislation he sought to support MILP, for example, Jonathan recalled, “I knew what I wanted, I knew where to get it, and nobody was going to stop me.” He has been largely successful with this approach, and he knows how to play the long game.
If Jay is the driver and Jonathan is the navigator, Mike is the pit crew. He operated meetings, produced agendas, designed surveys, collected and analyzed data, assisted with the conference work supporting Class 7 educators, and was my primary contact throughout the course-building project. But where does Mike’s interest come from? As what he calls a “silent speaker,” he can understand quite a bit of Neyio but not speak it fluently. He tells me that “being around Jay, and being around ceremony, the primary language is Neyio, and I wanted to learn about that and songs…what they’re saying, when they’re only speaking Cree language.” His interest stems from his own cultural connection and desire to become more involved.
Know Where You Are
Mike spills over with enthusiasm about the department’s accomplishments. He told me he feels especially successful at generating more conversation statewide on the topic of language preservation. His list of the department’s achievements includes the “Montana university system engaging people with renewal units, support of the university systems [during the language conferences the DOIE planned], a wave of language programming, elders sharing a lot of information, relatives across the border that are doing things, a round dance coming up with relatives from Canada…Mr. Wildcat’s presentation…curriculum being developed statewide.”
Jay added to this list:
We have created amended state legislation…we have created an awareness that is [unprecedented] in our community. That awareness has spilled out into other areas of Indian Country. They are contemplating introducing heritage languages [in school districts]...That’s the kind of language fellowship that is required in order for this region to begin to address the disenfranchised group that in essence, were the first Montanans.
His reference to school districts is fact: Havre Public Schools recently announced a Cree language class. Whether that decision stemmed from the DOIE’s efforts is unclear to me, but it does speak of a broader movement to promote Indigenous language that the DOIE was undoubtedly part of.
This work has not been without challenges. Jonathan noted that people resist him at times. He acknowledges this is part of the job, and makes this request of opponents: “My thought is that if you oppose any of my stuff, give me the reason why and give me a solution.” He does not hesitate to name folks who have obstructed him in the past over various bills he has introduced. When he does this, it feels a little like he’s telling battle stories; my guess is he doesn’t care if I agree with his stance or not. And I will say it’s easy to find people in Montana who don’t much appreciate his approach. But one thing is certain. Whether you like his ideas or not, Jonathan gets shit done.
Another challenge is that many agencies are trying to achieve the same results in language preservation, but they don’t always work in tandem. Mike said, “Stone Child [College] has the Cree language associate’s degree. There’s MCCLR. There’s the pre-K immersion program at Rocky Boy school. Then programming at Box Elder. Then other programs like at the clinic and MTDA…[it’s] just Cree language programs not communicating.” He added, “There’s been a little bit of competition…Part of it might be historical elements between families.”
“If my utterances cause consternation in your person, it’s probably something that you need to work on.”
At times, it felt as though the DOIE created some of their own hardship. Jay, for example, is not known for his delicate approach. He told me, “I am aware of my person. My style is pointed, direct, reality coming from the lineage I come from…Heritage-wise, I have inherited the position in the community as a te-pwe-stah-mah-kew (camp crier).”
That first phone call in 2021? That was Jay, letting me know that we – the Montana Digital Academy, public schools, the settler-colonizer system in general – needed to do better. The folks in our office listened to many minutes of Jay holding forth on this topic. I have seen him do the same to others, and by the force of his will he makes listeners hear him. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem. Jay again: “If my utterances cause consternation in your person, it’s probably something that you need to work on.”
Other organizations may not have been as receptive to the DOIE as the MTDA was, partly because the DOIE was offering what we needed: a language partner to begin the work of developing language courses. Other groups may have been put off by the strident tone of Jay’s lectures or the clobbering nature of Jonathan’s legislative endeavors.
Know Where You’re Going
The ARPA funding that initiated the Chippewa Cree Tribe Department of Indian Education is concluding shortly, and the office at Rocky Boy will close. Things will change. Rep. Windy Boy still has legislative obligations and work at home. He noted that “in Indian Country instead of being proactive we are always reactive” and suggested that his goal is to continue making progress regarding issues that affect his community.
“It really impacts people when they’re helped to reconnect, be reminded, and create the opportunity to reclaim their Turtle Island heritage.”
Mike said he isn’t sure what he’ll do next, but he would like to continue helping organizations bridge gaps and support teachers. He’d also like to learn more of his languages, particularly Ojibwe which hasn’t received as much emphasis as Cree. Jay explained this to me: “There’s always been resources to perpetuate and promote Neyiowewin [Cree] within our community. Ojibwemowin [Ojibwe] has always been neglected.” For Mike, learning Ojibwe is an important continuation of the work he began with his mentor and represents to him a deeper connection with his culture and community. If he is able to continue that learning exploration, he will be able to tie his past to his future.
As for Jay, he believes he can rely on the accomplishments he oversaw during his tenure as director of the department. He said, “I have proven that my contributions are considerable…I’m a proven language activist.” He hopes to work with other entities to help people re-engage with their own language and culture. Jay said, “It really impacts people when they’re helped to reconnect, be reminded, and create the opportunity to reclaim their Turtle Island heritage.”
Through this fourteen-month DOIE project, those are the opportunities the J Crew hopes they have begun to build.
You can read about my language project in this newsletter.
Very cool! In high school, somehow I picked up a soft spot for endangered languages. It wasn't until years later that I learned how many of those languages are on this continent, and close to home. While it was common to hear Spanish in Oregon, one of my first intercultural experiences in Billings was overhearing a snatch of a phone call in my apartment complex that was in a native language. I'm not sure when, but somewhere on my list of goals is to start learning one-probably Crow or Cheyenne, since those are spoken closest to me-and I appreciate the various digital and in-person efforts I see getting put into this!