For the Youth
December 15, 2021

For the Youth

A Conversation with Language Revitalizer Nora Packineau

Nora Packineau is from the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes

Her clan is Knife Clan, and she is passionate about collecting and documenting stories about her people. Packineau records and researches tribal customs to teach language to youth.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Describe your 2021 Cultural Capital fellowship. What were you able to accomplish?

The Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation [in central North Dakota] is vigilant at revitalizing our languages. We are “M.H.A.”: Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes. I'm all three. My mother was Hidatsa and Mandan, and my father was Arikara. Two [of the three] tribes have lost fluent speakers, so I started recording elders who spoke our traditional languages. We founded an L.L.C. called Maagarishda Hidatsa Learning Nest. We were inspired by language immersion programs in Hawai’i, and we actually raised money to travel to Hawai’i so we could learn from [Hawaiian language immersion expert] Nāmaka Rawlins (Keaukaha/Panaʻewa). We were impressed. We learned about what was needed to open [our own language revitalization program]. But when we returned from Hawai’i in March 2020, COVID-19 hit and we were shut down. Still, we decided to continue and build a digital curriculum for youth.

Hidatsa on the Go! is a smartphone app [with hundreds of words and phrases]. We recorded elders saying snippets of Hidatsa, such as greetings, introductions, and commands. Our youth use phones a lot, so we met them where they're at. That was a big thing for us because the reservation is a different environment. We're trying to push our culture [on the younger generation], which is their culture.

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1. Hidatsa On the Go! app. Image courtesy of the MHA Language Project. 2. Nora Packineau. 2021 Cultural Capital fellow. Image provided by the artist. 3. Hiráaca íire! (Speak Hidatsa!) book series. Image courtesy of The Language Conservancy. 4. Seasons greetings from the Maagarishda Hidatsa Learning Nest. Photo from the Learning Nest’s Facebook page.

That’s wonderful news. What’s driving the urgency behind your language revitalization work?

When we went to Hawai’i, we learned [Native Hawaiians] don't have fluent speakers anymore. They’re all learners now. That pushed us to act quickly. Our elders are the last fluent speakers, so I record them every week. And their desire is to not let the languages die. I'm just so impressed with them. Every day our elders help our children. But we lost two elders due to COVID-19. We push language revitalization because our elders won’t be here forever.

But my work is not just about language. Language, spirituality, and culture go together. Our tribe is thousands of years old. Spirituality is important for us. [Up until] the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, our tribe couldn’t practice [our spirituality] publicly. That’s what we're bringing back.

What advice can you offer to other tribes who want to revitalize their traditional languages?

Just do it. Get in there and do it with boots on the ground. That’s how I feel. Do it regardless of what others say. I don't listen to people who say [language revitalization] won’t or can’t happen.  If you don't do it, who's going to do the work for you? If you don't help your kids, who else will? We've had [language] programs fail, but we made attempts. No matter what, get out there and try. Do it and don't be afraid. And thankfully, it worked and we’re successful.

Our elders work hard, too, to teach our youth that language requires ownership. It’s [the younger generation’s] culture.

“And I appreciate First Peoples Fund. We purchased supplies [for our language program], and we're working on preschool curriculum.”

Connect with Nora Packineau on Facebook to learn more about the Maagarishda Hidatsa Learning Nest.

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