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Kevin F. Walker, President & CEO

Darrell Robes Kipp: An Appreciation

The Northwest Area Foundation lost a good friend recently when Darrell Robes Kipp passed away in his home community of Browning, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana. This summer, at our quarterly board meeting in Saint Paul, Darrell was his usual self – provocative, profound, funny, and determined. But in September, he stepped down from our Board of Directors for health reasons. And on the evening of November 21, he succumbed to cancer. It is hard for those of us who knew Darrell to comprehend how this part of his journey could have ended so suddenly. Darrell was one of those larger-than-life figures, a one-in-a-million character who changed his community and tried to change the world. I believe he succeeded. Time will tell.

Darrell Kipp was many things, and did many things, but the core of his life’s work as I understand it was his effort to save the Blackfeet language from extinction. For Darrell, reclaiming the language was a powerful way to counteract historical trauma and cultural suppression. It was a means of restoring his people’s sense of pride, dignity and self-determination.

Darrell and his partner in the work, Dr. Dorothy Still Smoking, established the Piegan Institute in Browning in 1987 and dedicated themselves to researching, promoting and preserving Native languages. The research effort was organically connected with their Blackfeet language immersion school, the first such program on an Indian reservation in the continental United States. Darrell and Dr. Still Smoking had determined through careful survey research that fluent speakers of the Blackfeet (Piegan) language were very few and increasingly elderly. Those elders were aging fast, and the language was not being passed on to younger generations. They calculated that early in the twenty-first century, the language would be gone. They set out to change that outcome, one young learner at a time.

Darrell loved spending time with the K-8 boys and girls at Cuts Wood School in Browning. He took great delight in their language skills and other academic achievements, but he also drew at least as much pleasure from their well-being as people. I have to paraphrase here, but this is more or less what I remember Darrell saying to me several times (I think he knew that no good story should get told only once, or twice, or three times…):

I tell parents, “When your baby was born, you knew he was a beautiful genius. A beautiful genius! Then the world got hold of him and started to tell him otherwise. But I guarantee you, if you send that child to our school, he’ll not only learn our language and speak it fluently, but he’ll finish  8th grade ready for high school – and he’ll still be a beautiful genius!”

It’s not clear whether Darrell and Dr. Still Smoking have won their fight to save the Blackfeet language. The last time I discussed the question with Darrell, this past summer, he seemed to believe that despite their efforts, Piegan might die out as a living language when the last fluent elders pass away, which will happen soon. Scores of students have graduated from Cuts Wood School with excellent language skills, but  I think Darrell had begun to see a future in which the language would persist mainly as an artifact – well-documented in the Piegan Institute’s archives, alive in traditional ceremonies carefully passed along, but lost as a daily asset of the Blackfeet people. Then again, maybe not. Maybe some of the graduates of Cuts Wood School, inspired by Darrell’s example, will come home and dedicate themselves to carrying on his work. The seeds that Darrell and his colleagues sowed will grow in their own good time. None of us knows what the future holds.

What I do know is that Darrell’s work was transformative. Native language revitalization is a burgeoning movement all across Indian Country. Some of these magnificent ancient languages will continue to wane, but others will be sustained for new generations.

Darrell Kipp and his Blackfeet colleagues were instrumental in making language revitalization a mainstream concept. Darrell told me in all seriousness that at first, “people thought we were crazy, or that we were just trying to make trouble.” What they were really trying to make is a future in which Native people have fully reclaimed the wholeness of their identity and the vibrancy of their cultures. It is a project worthy of a great man.

Darrell and I shared a love of poetry, so I will close this brief tribute with a poem-fragment that seems relevant to his language work. Darrell liked to say that “competition is a form of violence,” which provides me with a good place to enter this passage from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.


Darrell Kipp stops for a laugh and a shoeshine on his way to a Northwest Area Foundation Board meeting in Saint Paul, Minnesota, August 2013. Photographed by his fellow Board member Lynda Bourque Moss of Billings, Montana.

Darrell Kipp stops for a laugh and a shoeshine on his way to a Northwest Area Foundation Board meeting in Saint Paul, Minnesota, August 2013.
Photographed by his fellow Board member Lynda Bourque Moss of Billings, Montana.