Actor Lily Gladstone brings the Blackfeet language to the main stage
Updated January 26, 2024 at 7:29 AM ET
Lily Gladstone made history as the first Native American to win the Golden Globe for best actress in a motion picture drama for "Killers of the Flower Moon." And she marked the occasion by beginning her acceptance speech in the Blackfeet language, something that had never been done before on the Golden Globes stage.
Gladstone then continued her speech by crediting her mom, Betty Peace-Gladstone, for being able to speak the language.
"I'm here with my mom, who, even though she's not Blackfeet, worked tirelessly to get our language into our classrooms so I had a Blackfeet language teacher growing up," Gladstone said onstage.
Gladstone, who has Blackfeet and Nez Perce heritage, grew up on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. Her first formal Blackfeet education came in 2nd grade after her mom and other parents pushed to have it included in East Glacier Park Grade School's curriculum. There were no Blackfeet language classes, rather supplemental instruction from elders and people in the community who wanted to ensure their culture and language were passed on.
Peace-Gladstone, now a retired professor of early childhood education, understands the development of human beings. She knew her daughter's connection to the Blackfeet language and community would be crucial at a young age.
"When I moved to the reservation, I saw it in action—having the experience of children be reflective of who the community is. And that became even closer to my heart once I became a mother," Peace-Gladstone told NPR's Michel Martin on Morning Edition.
This education would also make Lily a self-advocate.
"When we moved to Seattle, she felt very empowered to address some misperceptions about Natives [and] to share more about who she was with her peers," Peace-Gladstone said.
But while Gladstone was still a child at East Glacier Park Grade School, her mom had to advocate on her behalf. Peace-Gladstone says there were institutional barriers to get the language into the school.
"There were a number of people in the community who were interested and willing [to help]," Peace-Gladstone said. "Some of the issues related more to institutional barriers, like finding funding. I really believe that people who are doing that kind of a service need to be paid for it and not volunteer."
They were able to make the supplemental activities possible through federal funding from the Johnson-O'Malley Act, which addresses the education needs of Indian students.
Though funding continues to fall short, it is much easier to implement the Blackfeet language in schools today, says Robert Hall, the director of Blackfeet Native American Studies Program for the Browning Public School District.
"Back in the late 80s [and] early 90s, our heads were still ringing from the abuse from boarding dorms," Hall said. "Not that they're not ringing anymore, but there has been a lot of healing of that trauma and an understanding—a paradigm shift."
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition revealed there were more than 523 U.S. government-funded schools where Indian children were ripped of their Native identity in order to assimilate to white society. Children were not allowed to speak their Native language and were beaten, starved and even confined as punishment.
"We don't have that history of literacy, nor do we have the abundance of media available, nor do we have a speech community anymore because of the colonizing force that ensured that. And so, basically what we need to do is create everything from scratch," said Hall, who is working on revitalizing the Blackfeet language.
He believes there are no households that speak complete Blackfeet anymore, and those who are fluent speakers are likely over the age of 65.
"The language carries a—and I think this is true of all Indigenous languages— reflection of the people's relationship to the land, the creatures, the elements that exist in the land and kinship terms," Peace-Gladstone said. "It describes the social relationships between people. And as people study their own language, even if they aren't growing up speaking it, those elements of culture become a lot more apparent to them and a lot more dear."
This was evident as Gladstone took time to address her Blackfeet community on the night of the Golden Globes.
She is also embracing the Blackfeet language in her everyday life by translating her pronouns into English. Gladstone uses she/they pronouns, partly because there are no gendered pronouns in Blackfeet and because "[their] pronoun use is partly a way of decolonizing gender for [herself]," she told Entertainment Weekly.
"It's a really joyous thing what Lily did—speak Blackfoot up there because she brought her ancestors and her people up with her up to that podium, and she's sharing it with us all," Hall said. "Her action rejuvenated a lot of our students and got them more excited to speak Blackfoot and learn Blackfoot."
On Tuesday, Lily Gladstone was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, once again making history as the first Native American woman to do so.
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