Blog: The Lessons of Talking Animals

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On two occasions this week, I was invited to learn lessons from talking animals: first, the prince of the forest, a deer named Bambi, and second, the Western Meadowlark.

Through the generous support of our donors, Wyoming Humanities has partnered with Central Wyoming College and Wyoming Public Television to host a series called Tribal Talks. This program provides an opportunity to learn about Indigenous wisdom with topics such as language, ecology, arts and culture, and the opportunities and challenges of Tribal sovereignty. While the talks are hosted in Jackson, they are being turned into to educational modules for students across the state.

The most recent Tribal Talks focused on the importance of language preservation, especially for the Shoshone and Arapaho. To start the discussion, we played a portion of the Arapaho version of the Disney classic, Bambi.

The champion to make the Arapaho version of Bambi was a Southern Arapaho linguist and educator, Dr. Stephen Greymorning. At the time, Dr. Greymorning was in charge of language and cultural programs at Wyoming Indian School and was concerned about losing the Arapaho language. In the 1990s, the youngest fluent speaker of Arapaho was 43 years old. Translating Bambi would allow new generations to appreciate and learn the unique Arapaho tongue.

Dr. Greymorning was dogged in his pursuit to get Disney to allow the project to happen. Ultimately, it was Roy Disney, brother of the late Walt Disney, who gave the green light. Never before had a Disney film been translated into an Indigenous language. Thirty Tribal members, eighteen of whom were kids, traveled to Jackson for the voice recordings. The cast included members of familiar families such as Spoonhunter, Wallowingbull, Goggles, Oldman, Redman, Tropser, Ferris and others. The Arapaho Bambi premiered in Lander in November 1994.

Bambi was a fitting story to be carried by the Arapaho language. Animals play an important role in Native storytelling. In Arapaho Stories Songs and Prayers: A Bilingual Anthology (2005), authors Andrew Cowell, Alonzo Moss, Sr., and William J. C’Hair write “[animal stories] are myths (heetée-toono), which recount origins and creations as well as the working out of proper relationships among animals, humans, and other powerful creatures of the world as well the natural environment. In these stories, we see things becoming what they later will be in the human world.” Through animals, Arapaho stories “focus on mystery, surprise, unexpected encounters…confusion…and shifting perspectives.”

The Tribal Talks panel included Lynette St. Clair, an Eastern Shoshone semi-retired educator who talked about multigenerational projects to document tens of thousands of Shoshone words in a dictionary app. Raphael Young-Chief, a budding entrepreneur, talked about his experiences and challenges in teaching Arapaho at Wyoming Indian High School. Most interesting to me, however, were the words of Marlin Spoonhunter.

Marlin explained that the youngest fluent speakers of Arapaho are now in their sixties, and several of the few fluent speakers have recently passed away. Fading languages should be of great concern to all of us— Native speakers or not. To lose a language is to lose the ideas and stories that shape us.

But there was something else Marlin taught me,something beautiful and hopeful. The Western Meadowlark, Wyoming’s state bird since 1927, speaks fluent Arapaho. He told me about conversations between Arapahos and Meadowlarks and the wisdom imparted by the birds.

It makes sense that Meadowlarks speak Arapaho. The bird is a symbol of adaptability, resilience, and resourcefulness. Their songs are beautiful and communicate a territory, an awareness of surroundings, and an appreciation for the natural world.

There is a lot to learn from talking animals and I’ve been blessed with the lessons I’ve recently learned.

Wyoming Humanities invites Wyoming to explore the ideas and stories that shape us. If you are interested in supporting language preservation and learning the ideas and stories from unlikely sources, please support Wyoming Humanities.