Preserving culture and language through passion and resilience

This month, we visited with Jacob Brien, an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe. Jacob is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Rocky Mountain College.

Please start with your background, tribe, where you grew up, family, schools attended, what you are currently doing now, etc:

I’m from the Crow Reservation, specifically from Benteen in Montana. I went to Crow Head Start. Believe it or not, I went to Lockwood School for two years. My mom got a job here in Billings for the Gazette. She was a reporter. It was a pretty cool thing for my mom. There were not many Crow women with journalism degrees back then. Then, in 2008, she got laid off. After living in Billings for a while, I went to Crow School. Then, I went to Pretty Eagle from third to eighth grade. Then, in my freshman year of high school, I went to St. Labre in Ashland, Montana. From there, I went to Lodge Grass High School. That’s where I graduated. But my home base is Benteen. It’s where I grew up. It’s out in the country. It’s off the frontage road, and it’s in between Nest Creek and Reno Creek. I love it. I mean it’s the best, the country. It’s not loud except for the train, but that’s just life along I-90. There’s always the train, but most of the time, it’s really quiet. I love it. Growing up, I was an outside kid. I played with my dog. I have a twin brother, and we would always make up games. We used to try to ride my dog like a horse, but he’s a dog, so it never worked out. One of my favorite memories of growing up in Crow, I remember we had a toy box. It was big, and we used to keep our toys there. Once, we poured our toys out, went to the deck onto the wooden steps, got in the box, and slid down the stairs. These days, I’m studying sociology at Rocky in Billings, and I plan to go to grad school for sociolinguistics. My endgame is to be a part of language revitalization for my tribe. A couple of years ago, I was one of the editorial staff for the Crow Dictionary. It was pretty cool. I got to interview people and ask, ” What does this word mean? How do you say it? Where’s the inflection?” Things like that. Linguistics terminology is not mainstream, so it was really fun to make those questions seem natural, to make it something an everyday person can understand. One thing that was really fun about that job was asking questions.

Jacob Brien stands outside of Western Native Voice’s office in Billings, MT.

What got you into linguistics? Why do you like it?

As a kid, I was always interested in the Crow language. In school, we had a teacher. When she got mad at us in class, she would say, “We’re going to lose our language and our culture, and it’s going to be all your fault.” I was nine, so that was pretty extreme. It must’ve worked because I was always interested in the Crow language from then on. So when I went to St. Labre, I had an awesome teacher. Her core language class was really good. I was speaking some Crow by the time I was done. It really helped that I was the only one in her class. At St. Labre, it’s Cheyenne kids and Crow kids, and you could choose your own elective, and nobody chose Crow language. I was the only one there, which was a lot of fun. At the same time, in English class, our teacher taught us grammar and how to understand the subject and object of a sentence and the direct object and indirect object. I saw the connection and thought we could do the same for the Crow language. We were in class one day, and I said I wished there was a job where you could study the Crow language, and my teacher said there is a job. She said she worked with people on the Crow Dictionary Project, and that’s what she does. They ask her questions about the Crow language. I asked her what that job was called, and she told me people who study languages are called linguists. That’s how I knew I wanted to do linguistics.

What are you currently doing now?

Right now, I’m trying to graduate. There are fun things I like to do, too. I like to go to hand games and sing. I really like to do all kinds of stuff, but my main focus is school. I’m also doing an internship with Western Native Voice and got connected with a Native Organizers Alliance, and I’m working on a data project survey through that program. The survey asks about voter affiliation, demographics, race, and where you grew up. It asks if you grew up in the country or the city. The whole point of the project is to understand the Native voting population in the United States.

What motivated you to pursue your current career or path?

Crow language has always been important to me. Ever since I was in third grade, we used to get yelled at for not speaking Crow. The thing about getting yelled at for not speaking Crow is that it turns a lot of people off from trying to learn it because they expect a negative reaction. But when I took learning the language into my own hands and tried studying it, it was pretty good. My only real barrier is that I don’t live with any fluent speakers. My mom doesn’t speak Crow, and my grandparents don’t speak Crow. It’s unusual on the Crow reservation when your grandparents aren’t fluent in Crow. Most of my friends’ grandparents can speak Crow, and for many of them, their parents can also speak Crow. My friends always ask me, “Jacob, how did you learn to speak Crow?” First of all, I wouldn’t call myself a fluent speaker. I’m just trying. I’m trying to ask questions. I ask, “Hey, how do you say this? How do you say that?” Knowing how to form a basic sentence is important, too. That’s a barrier. Many people don’t know how to structure a sentence in Crow because you learn numbers, colors, and shapes in most Crow language classes on the reservation. Everyone 30 years and younger can count from one to 10 in Crow, but they don’t know how to speak a sentence. 

Jacob Brien getting ready for NADC’s Holiday of Giving.

Do you think embarrassment stops people from asking those essential questions that they need to ask in order to learn the Crow language?

That’s been the rhetoric that many people have used, but at this point, that’s not the case anymore. Some people grew up on the reservation their whole lives, and the Crow language is still not a part of their daily lives. So they don’t even know what to ask. That isolation, that separation from the language, is at the point where people don’t even think about it. People want to hear the English translation if someone tells a story. They never want to hear how it sounds like in Crow. But then there are a lot of words in Crow that aren’t used in English, and there are a lot of old words that people don’t use anymore because our lifestyle has changed. One time, I was listening to a recording, and when the speaker was telling the story, he said a word for when an arrow ricochets off of a buffalo rib. We don’t use that word anymore because of our lifestyle. We don’t use arrows. We don’t chase buffalo. So that word becomes lost in time. That happens as part of a language’s evolution. That’s one thing about sociolinguistics, language documentation, and understanding the barriers to speaking a language. The biggest barrier, even though it’s an ugly way to think like this, is that there’s no concrete reason why anyone would need to learn the Crow language. There’s a symbolic reason because it’s who we are, but all of the schools on the reservation operate in English. Every business on the reservation operates in the English language. I went to a ceremony where they used English to swear the new Crow legislators into office. The English language dominates our lives. The Crow language is important, but we need to create opportunities to use our language. We need to create environments where our language is the only language used, and we need to use it. Crow could be the mandatory language of instruction on the reservation, or street signs could be made in Crow language like they do up in Flathead. They have a handful of tribal language speakers up there. I did a survey when I was at the University of Oregon two summers ago, and I found that almost half of Crow people speak Crow, so there’s no reason we can’t implement initiatives as they do in Flathead.   

What challenges did you face along the way and how did you overcome them?

The two biggest things I’m trying to do right now are graduate school and speak the Crow language. I went to college during Covid in 2021. In my first semester of college, I had two relatives pass away from Covid. It was hard. And then one of my relatives, one of my Crow sisters, died from cirrhosis at 24. That was all in the first semester. And then, the very next semester, my mom’s brother passed away. He was only in his 40s, and he died from Covid. He left behind five kids, and none of them are adults yet. Those kids don’t have a dad, which was really tough. That first semester, I failed two classes. Coming from high school, where I always got A’s, getting an F was pretty big.

I don’t like to say it, but I thought I was really the smartest person around because I was for so long. Failing classes challenged me. I had an identity crisis. I thought, am I not smart? Now I know that it’s not about how smart you are. It’s about how hard you try. But that was a tough part of my life. That first year, I wondered if college was even for me. But then I just kept thinking about my goal: to get a linguistics degree to help my language. That’s the goal. I just kept focusing on the plan and trying to figure out how to be a good student. I also had to learn time management. That’s hard. I figured out that going to bed and waking up at the same time is the key, but oh man, it’s hard. 

So organization and time management helped you with your class, but how did you overcome all the death and tragedy you experienced that first semester?

After that first year, I went to Oregon as a part of Research Experience for Undergrads. There was a great group of people there, and it was in linguistics, which was so much fun. It was a class for no credit, and then we did some research that we published. I made some good friends there. Every day, every hour, we were laughing. It was the hardest I ever laughed. It was just a great summer. It helped me get over the tragedy in my life. I still think about the people I’ve lost, and I get sad, but I understand that I have to move on. That’s a big part of life.

Jacob Brien at WNV Billings Office.

Who were your role models or sources of inspiration when you were younger?

A big influence in my life is my big brother, Aaron Brien. He has a master’s degree in anthropology. He graduated high school in 2001, went to SKC, and was there a little while before he stopped going. Then he lived in Arlee, Montana, for 20 years, but in 2015, he went back to college. He got his bachelor’s degree right after he got his associate’s degree. Then, he earned his master’s degree. I like to think about that. Even if you think it’s over, you can go back and finish it. Aaron’s taught me a lot. He teaches me songs and things about the Crow culture and language. He’s pretty good. 

And then there are people like my grandpa, Eric Brien. I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without him. And then I have to mention my mom; she’s had a big influence on my life. I also have to throw in Lauren Fatlip. She’s the coolest person ever. She could sell water to a whale. She taught me how to drive. She taught me how to use my mirrors while learning to drive. When I was going to school at St. Labre, Lauren visited our house every day. She taught me how to cook deer meat by cutting it into strips, breading, and frying it. She taught me how to do all of that. 

What advice would you give to a younger person who is unsure about their future career or goals?

Find something you’re actually interested in. The path to success is different for everyone. I almost didn’t even go to college. I thought about being a machinist, and it still would’ve been something I would’ve enjoyed. There are different ways you can get into a career. There are apprenticeships or accelerated programs. For machinists, there’s a program at Sheridan College. After a nine-month program, you’re a certified machinist. It looked like a lot of fun, but my love for the Crow language is strong, so I wanted to do that. But find something that you wake up in the morning and you think, man, I can’t wait to do that. It will look different for everyone, whether it’s college, trade, school, or even working at a Head Start or maybe it’s cooking food. Love something with the same intensity every day. There are going to be days where you’re mad about something, but as long as there are more days that you’re excited about it than days you’re not. I think that’s pretty good.

Can you share an example of a time when you had to step out of your comfort zone? What did you learn from that experience?

When I went to Oregon two summers ago for REU [Research Experience for Undergrads], I learned that disagreeing with someone’s opinion doesn’t mean I have to try to argue with them. Growing up, I was taught to win a conversation, but that’s not how conversations work. Even if you don’t agree with somebody, you can talk to them without the goal of changing their mind. When you figure that out, you realize that it isn’t uncomfortable to be next to someone who doesn’t have the same opinion. It could be little things, too, whether you think this movie is better than that movie or even political things. For me, the difference of opinion was about language. My friends and peers in Oregon grew up in cities, so they had that pan-Indian attitude. We’re all one people. I was like, no, I’m from the Crow tribe. I’m not part of your people. I realized I didn’t have to hurt their feelings to make my point. I started understanding that if I sit in the uncomfortable position of a different opinion for a bit, I might learn something new. That’s what I did. I learned that I don’t have to win a conversation. Sometimes, I have to remind myself, especially when people talk about something they don’t know about. For example, people who talk about language have these archaic attitudes about it. They will say, oh, this language is better than that language. Or if they say, well, there are no other languages related to this language, and there are. I have to constantly remind myself, especially when it comes to language, to calm down. I don’t have to change people’s minds. I can enjoy life. I don’t have to argue with people.

What skills or qualities do you believe are most important for young people to develop in order to succeed in their chosen paths?

Time management and organization. That’s it, and understanding how to read a room. How you present yourself is important, but that’s the next level. The basics are waking up at the same time, going to bed at the same time every night, making sure you have clean clothes every day, and having food in the fridge. I get in ruts sometimes. Even now, I’m in a rut. I don’t think I’ve washed laundry in two weeks. I look at the pile of clothes on my floor, thinking it’s disgusting. Someone should really do something about it, and I remember, oh yeah, it has to be me.

What strategies do you use to continue learning and growing in your field?

Knowing your limits. There was a while when I wouldn’t say no to anything. Sometimes, I still have problems with this. At school, they would ask, do you want to be on the student council? I was like, sure. And they’re like, Hey, you want to be president of the game club? I was like, sure. And they said, Hey, you’re on the track team now. I was just like, oh, yeah, I’ll do that. I kept saying yes, and then I was spread so thin that I couldn’t move. One strategy I learned is before saying yes to something, say let me check my schedule, or I’ll get back to you. Usually, people want a yes or no, so if I have any worry at all, I can’t do it. I say no. Then if they’re like, oh, you sure? That’s when I say let me check my schedule. That way, in their head, they already have no, you’re not going to do it, so they aren’t disappointed if your schedule doesn’t allow it.

Jacob Brien on his first day as Western Native Voice’s fall intern.

In your opinion, what are the most pressing challenges or opportunities for young people today?

The most pressing challenge is to be successful in your own way and to find something you enjoy doing. It’s also the biggest opportunity because there are so many ways to do it. It’s a lot of trial and error. For me, in college, my first semester, I got an A and no Fs, but I got a B. I got two Fs in my second semester, a B and an A. I wasn’t used to that. It wasn’t until my third semester that I started to find my own way. I started to get As. It comes back to knowing your limits, knowing what you can do, how you can do it most efficiently, and what you actually enjoy. If you’re doing something you don’t enjoy, you won’t want to do it. Let’s say your job is digging holes; you dig a hole and then fill it back up. If you don’t love digging and filling holes, you’re going to ask yourself, what am I doing? I’m just digging a hole and filling it up to get paid. 

How do you envision the future, and what role do you see young people playing in shaping it?

Hopefully, it’s better. Where I live, I really would like to see the Crow language become an everyday thing for people because even when my mom went to school in the 80s and 90s, half of the kids she went to school with spoke Crow as their first language. When I went to school, no kids spoke Crow as their first language. She went to kindergarten in 1985. I went to kindergarten in 2008. In that time period, it diminished by that much, so I really hope that Crow language becomes an integral part of your average Crow’s day-to-day life. The only way to do that is to bring the Crow language back to the schools. If someone’s first language is Crow, and then they go to Head Start or Kindergarten and the instruction is only in English, pretty soon they’ll only speak English. Their parents may speak to them in Crow, but the child speaks back in English. So they grow up understanding the Crow language, but they can’t speak it. If the language of instruction in Crow schools was Crow, and you’re taught to speak Crow at a young age in the schools, you’re going to speak Crow. Sometimes, people make the language crisis a mystery, but I think what’s happening is pretty clear. When my grandparents were kids, there were still people who couldn’t speak English, so a lot of their friends just spoke Crow out of necessity. Now, everyone speaks English.

Can you share a piece of advice or a mantra that has guided you throughout your journey?

When I was in high school, one of my grandpas showed me the song his grandma had made, and it said whatever you do, don’t back down. So I think about that. My grandpa died when I was a senior in high school, and I think about that song. I have a recording of it, and I sing that song to myself and remind myself, especially when I’m having these low points at college. I always remind myself, don’t back down and don’t be afraid. Especially when I have a bunch of assignments due, don’t be afraid of these assignments. They’re just pieces of paper. They’re not even pieces of paper. They’re just pixels on a screen.

What projects or initiatives are you currently working on that could inspire or involve young people?

One thing I’m doing that could inspire the youth is going to college, which is a big one. Many people don’t even graduate high school back where I’m from, so going to college and graduating is a big thing. I hope it inspires people. Getting this internship role at Western Native Voice is a big deal. People see what I’m doing on Facebook and think, oh, wow, if Jacob can get an internship, I can do it too. 

How can young individuals get involved in causes or fields they’re passionate about, even if they feel like they’re just starting out?

This answer will sound obnoxious, but even going to an office. I’ve knocked on doors before and said, “Hey, I want to get involved. How can I do this?” I got an internship at a museum because Aaron, my brother, suggested I ask them if they had any openings. He said they had a lot of Crow stuff and did a lot of interviews with Crow people. So I walked up to the office, knocked on the door, told them I was going to Rocky, and asked, “Hey, is there anything I can do?” It worked out because they had a work-study contract through Rocky, and I got the job. That sounds like a BS answer. It’s one of those things; there is some luck in it, but if you’re just motivated to do something, you’ll find a way to do it. Even if you’re going to college, and once you have a degree, that can open up a lot of doors. It starts with figuring out what you want to do and then being like, okay, this is what I want. What are the ways to get there? Because the path I took to get where I am now was not conventional. Figuring out different ways to get to the same thing is key. If knocking on doors and getting offered internships isn’t something that happens for you, find another path. It takes effort. It’s not just going to fall into your lap. You still have to put in the work. 

In your experience, how has mentorship or guidance from others contributed to your success?

Whenever someone gives me advice, I evaluate if it’s good. Most often, the advice I’ve gotten is pretty good, and I try to live by that. One good piece of advice I got was that you don’t have to learn the hard way to realize something’s bad. I know some people I went to high school with who started drinking when they were 14. But you don’t have to wind up in jail or something drastic to realize, oh, I shouldn’t have done that. You can listen when someone says, “Hey, don’t do that because this is the consequence.” Part of my success is not drinking. I don’t do drugs or smoke, and a big reason why I don’t is just listening to the advice I’ve received since I was young. I’ve made a conscious effort to stay away from things like that and from people who go out and party and drink.

What is one thing you wish you had known or done differently when you were younger?

This answer will sound really funny compared to just my last question, but I wish I had broken the rules more because I realized I felt like I was under a lot of strict rules growing up. Not that I wouldn’t have done anything bad, but just I wasn’t allowed to leave anywhere. In high school, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t go anywhere. I went straight to school and back home. I didn’t dare go anywhere else. I didn’t want to get in trouble, so I wished I had just taken more risks like that. 

Jacob Brien (left) and Western Native Voice’s Youth Program Director Tristen Belgarde (right) celebrate the holiday festivities.

What message would you like to convey to young individuals who may be facing self-doubt or uncertainty about their potential?

If you asked me last week, I would’ve had a good answer, but now this week, I don’t know because I’m facing self-doubt. I mean, with self-doubt, you’ll never know unless you try. So you might as well try. That’s my opinion on that. Developing a routine is really important. When I have a routine, my life is easier. And it just helps you manage what happens in a day more. If your life is already unpredictable and something unpredictable happens, it’s a mess. But if your life is predictable, if you have a routine, when something unexpected happens, you’re more easily able to handle it. I took three winter classes when I was attending Rocky, so that’s nine credits. I would go to my class at nine in the morning. It was a four-hour class, and I had 30 minutes between that class and my next class. I would eat real fast and run over to another four-hour class. Then, I would go straight to my dorm to start work on my online math class, which usually had a daily assignment due at midnight. Because I had a routine and a schedule, I did all the work by 7 pm. So when my mom came to town and wanted to go out to eat, it felt good because I could do that with her. I would have more time for myself and my mom, which gave me something to look forward to. It was nice compared to semesters where I didn’t have a schedule, routine, or anything like that. Those were times when I was constantly on edge, and it felt like it just gave me more self-doubt. 

Is there a particular story or lesson from your own journey that you’d like to share as an inspiration to young people?

Some of the best advice I ever got was from my big brother; he said to be ready for the day, not the event. When you wake up, dress nice, put your shoes on, have everything ready in the house, and then start your day. If I sleep until noon and then wake up,  I’m not showered; my hair’s crazy. Then, if an opportunity comes up, I’m not ready. It’s like, I want to go, but I look like a mess. I should have been ready. And then you end up going late. But if you go to bed and wake up the same time every day and have that predictability, then stuff like that, you can just be okay. And then you jump in your car and head out. So take advantage of every opportunity.

What is one change you would like to see happen in your hometown community?

I would like to see more economic opportunities for speaking Crow. If you spoke Crow and were looking for a job, the only position that skill would set you apart would be as a Crow language teacher. And I don’t know if you’ve heard, but teachers aren’t paid anything. There needs to be economic opportunities for our language. Even if the tribal government were to incentivize people, if you speak crow, you get this much more in your paycheck or something like that. And it would encourage people to speak Crow. We need to create environments where our language is needed. That’s what I would like to happen in my community.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I hope to have a graduate degree, and I hope to be working for my tribe on the language crisis. That’s what I want to do.