The Legacy of Zdeněk Salzmann for the Arapaho (Hinónoʼeiteen)[1]

November is Native American Heritage month. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) refers to it as a “month to celebrate rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native People.” [2] That celebration started in 1990, when George H. W. Bush “approved a joint resolution designating November [as] Native American Heritage Month.”[3]

Zdeněk Salzmann, an anthropological linguist, traveled to the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, to research the Arapaho language and culture.  His project, which was part of his PhD thesis, started in 1949, but continued in the 1950s, 1960s and later in the 1980s, when this time he was acting as principal investigator for the “Arapaho Cultural Heritage Reinforcement project” with the University of Massachusetts.

His work involved interviews with the elders that were fluent in Arapaho, inquiring about their customs, but also researching the vocabulary, verbs, songs, tales and folklore, also creating an English-Arapaho dictionary out of index cards.  In 1963, he published his thesis, “A Sketch of Arapaho Grammar”.

Arapaho translated songs
Translated songs, Box 15, Zdeněk Salzmann Arapaho Indian research papers, Collection #10396, American Heritage Center, University of Wymoing.
translation of body parts from Arapaho to English
Body parts, Box 15, Zdeněk Salzmann Arapaho Indian research papers, Collection #10396, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

For the Wind River Indian Reservation tribe, the preservation of their culture is becoming increasingly important. Only a few dozen amongst the elders speak it fluently. The use of the language was put aside in schools when the missionaries settled on the reservation in the late 1800s until the late 1930’s. Only English was allowed to be spoken in the classroom of the St. Stephens Indian Boarding School.[4]

In 2010, UNESCO listed the language as severely endangered, but efforts to bring back the daily use of the Arapaho Language, started in 2000, when the Tribe got a chance to partner with a linguistics professor from the University of Colorado Boulder.  Andrew Cowell used the research material created by Salzmann, and over the years, it led to the creation of a dictionary, edited three times, and was produced using the index cards that Zdeněk Salzmann created. Andrew Cowell’s project also includes an outreach website which can serve as an educational tool, about the Arapaho language and culture.

Arapaho language dictionary cards
Letter “A”, dictionary cards, Box 18, Zdeněk Salzmann Arapaho Indian research papers, Coll. #10396, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The Arapaho Language Project[5] is ongoing, and the Arapaho Tribe on the Wind River Indian Reservation, benefits from tools such as websites, phone apps and video tutorials used by the students in the classrooms.[6] 

To learn more about the Arapaho language and culture, see the Zdeněk Salzmann Arapaho Indian research papers at the American Heritage Center. Part of the collection is also available digitally.

[4] Meyers, Micalea. “Revitalizing the Arapaho Language.UWyo: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of the University of Wyoming, vol. 21, no. 1, 2019, pp. 24-28.
[6] Simpson, Kevin. “To Save Their Dying Language, the Arapaho turn to High-tech Apps, Old-school Flash Cards and a New Generation.” Denver Post, 23 April 2017, Accessed 23 October 2019.

Blog contribution by: Alexandra Cardin, Archival Processor at the AHC


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