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Kelli Hobi is studying Native American sign language at the University of Montana, and not just to communicate.

"Learning about culture is the main thing," Hobi said.

When asked, she shares her favorite sign without hesitation: Rabbit. Make the peace sign with your fingers, and have them hop, with the ears pointing up at the end.

At UM, Native American language offerings are growing stronger despite the budget crunch.

Last spring, adjunct instructor Iva Croff began teaching the sign language course at UM, a class that presents students with a language that's considered generally universal among tribes. (The language doesn't completely line up with any dialect, and Croff shares reasons that variations exist.)

As of the last school year, students taking Blackfoot language classes could use the credits to fulfill their language requirement, which more firmly establishes the courses, said Wade Davies, chair of the Native American Studies Department.

"That one is a commitment of not only the department but of the university," Davies said. "We wouldn't expect it to have as many students as taking Spanish, but even if the numbers aren't great, it's very important to us and to the university."

In part, he said, it illustrates UM's commitment to Native Americans in the state, and in learning the language, he said, pupils understand much more.

"It (challenges) students to think in different ways and have respect for diverse and different cultures, and of course, that the language isn't just a tool to communicate," he said. "In learning a language, you learn a lot about people's world views and philosophies."

***

In class last week, Croff reviewed signs and their origins with some eight students.

"All eyes on me," she said.

To make the sign for a buffalo, she put her head down and used fingers as horns: "Bow your head because you don't have a snout."

Many of the signs are little stories, like the one for "happy." It's a combination of words that means, literally, "sunshine in my heart."

The story for "creek" is "small water moving." A "library" combines the words for "building," "read," and "think."

Croff, also a graduate student in interdisciplinary Native American Studies and American Indian Law, said she started teaching the course last spring as part of her own graduate work, and she'll finish teaching it this semester.

She hopes that eventually, UM will make it a permanent part of the curriculum, possibly in partnership with Blackfeet Community College.

"I don't see that in the near future because of the budget crunch," she said.

Tribes in Montana speak at least 12 different languages, she said, and Croff herself speaks Blackfoot. She isn't fluent, and knowing sign language helped her take meeting minutes for the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council for 20 years until 2004.

"It was not uncommon for every monthly meeting to have the elders that spoke solely the Blackfoot language," she said.

She followed their signs to record the minutes.

Last spring, 14 students enrolled in the course, and this spring, 10 enrolled. In class, they sign along with her, and they've learned 200 words to date.

"They're all catching on really well, and we have a lot of fun," she said.

***

In the past, Davies said students who took all nine credits of the Blackfoot language still had to take another language to fulfill the university requirement. Now, they don't have to take extra courses.

The Native American Studies Department also offers a course on the methodology of Native languages, and faculty and staff would like to grow the number of courses in the future.

"We're very focused on the importance of Native languages and their retention," Davies said. "So it's something that's always mattered to us and to our students."

The department experienced budget cuts along with the rest of UM, but it continued offering the sign language course regardless, he said. It pulled funds from money that in the past came from donors to pay for things like student events.

"We used that money that usually isn't used to pay for instruction to pay for Iva's class," Davies said. "That was important enough to us."

One challenge with the Native language classes is finding not only a speaker, but someone who is also able to teach, he said. He'd like UM to continue the sign language course down the road, and to add other languages as well.

"We would love to have more indigenous languages, including any or all of the languages spoken in Montana," Davies said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.