LODGE GRASS - As teacher Lark Real Bird stretches her hands over her head, her third-grade students take turns tapping them, letting brightly colored blocks fall down onto a blanket below.
The lesson is in berry picking, the word of the week, spelled phonetically in the Crow language at the top of the whiteboard.
“Bah-li-dua,” Real Bird says, fake berries raining out of her hands.
“Bah-li-dua,” the third graders repeat, gathering the blocks from the blanket below.
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Real Bird started teaching at Lodge Grass Elementary School in 2017 as a substitute teacher.
But her knowledge of Crow language and culture, previous experience teaching language at Little Bighorn College — and master’s degree in Native American studies with a focus on language preservation — moved her into a different teaching role completely.
“Crow language is my first language and so I’m fluent in it,” Real Bird said. “In my household growing up, all of us spoke Crow, it was what we did. I didn’t know anything else until we went to school.”
But the fluency of Crow language across the Apsaalooke Nation has declined, and now most of the exposure children get to the language is in classrooms like Real Bird’s.
“We’re at a point where we have a lot of non-Crow speakers, but at the same time, there’s still a lot of us who speak. But I’ve always said this for the last 10-15 years. We’re actually in denial about our language loss and that’s because there’s still a lot of us who speak.”
Real Bird teaches elementary and pre-K Crow language and culture classes at Lodge Grass Elementary School as well as Native art and beading classes in Lodge Grass High School.
“I enjoy what I do, and it’s actually interesting because I didn’t start out to be a teacher. My background is totally different. My master’s is Native American Studies emphasizing Language Preservation, which is how I ended up doing this,” Real Bird said.
“But as I thought back on most of my jobs, I’m always working with the youth, and so when I was asked, they asked me why I want to be a teacher and I said, ‘Actually, this profession chose me, I didn’t choose it.”
The momentum behind teaching Crow language and culture in classrooms across the Apsaalooke Nation is only picking up with Crow language dictionaries, apps, and schools like Lodge Grass offering classes pre-K through 12th grade.
Dropping handfuls of colorful blocks, Real Bird says the kids are listening.