Our Mother Tongues Blog

Our Mother Tongues and WE STILL LIVE HERE Featured in Indigenous Refugee Youth Workshop

March 29, 2012 - 10:33 AM | by Our Mother Tongues

Cultural Survival’s Endangered Languages Program and the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP) this month hosted a day-long workshop for more than 70 teens from Vietnam at the Montagnyard Pinecroft Learning Center and Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.


“We were invited by the Underrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization based in Amsterdam to meet with the Greensboro tribal youth group about film, web, and language revitalization projects they can implement locally through their youth and community associations.  The students were really eager to learn about Indigenous cultures and languages in the U.S., so we used OurMotherTongues.org and a series of film clips to explore Indian Country’s diversity – with a special focus on master-apprentice and other language immersion programs like the Euchee's, Sauk's, and Wampanoag's,” said Jennifer Weston (Hunkpapa Lakota), who manages Cultural Survival’s Endangered Languages Program.


Tracy Kelley, a full-time language apprentice with WLRP opened the morning with a prayer in the Wampanoag language, and helped Weston introduce WE STILL LIVE HERE to the group to open the afternoon session. Both Weston and Kelley talked at length with the students about their home communities’ unique histories and languages, using maps, images and the Our Mother Tongues Voices page to demonstrate the vast diversity of Indigenous languages and cultures found throughout the U.S. Most of the students are multilingual, speaking one or more tribal languages from Vietnam, and all are learning English. Kelley and Weston urged the teens to retain their tribal languages and take pride in their unique heritage.


Montagnyard tribal communities often experience severe discrimination in Vietnam based on their historic collaboration with U.S. armed forces during the years leading up to and during the Vietnam War, so the students were interested to learn more about the long history of conflict and treaties over tribal homelands that eventually became part of the United States of America.


“I want to learn more about Sitting Bull and the Little Bighorn,” said one youth, his eyes lighting up during introductions. Each young person was asked to speak their name in their tribal language, and if possible, state in English something they hoped to learn by the end of the day. The students with advanced English skills also submitted written evaluations and many warmly invited their presenters to return soon. “Thank you for coming and spending your time to teach us,” read one. “ I am so thankful for what you did. I learned how important it is [to speak our mother tongues], and how brave those people are to stand firm.  Thank you!”


Read more and see photos from the day here.

Native Student from Menominee Tribe Punished for Speaking Her Mother Tongue

February 28, 2012 - 11:20 AM | by Our Mother Tongues

National American Indian news outlets, including The Native News Network and Indian Country Today, both reported this month on the punishment received by a young tribal student at a Wisconsin Catholic school for speaking to one of her seventh grade classmates in her Menominee language. According to both media outlets, twelve-year old Miranda Washinawatok told her mother on the evening of January 19 that she had been suspended from that afternoon’s basketball game because her coach said two teachers had criticized Miranda’s “bad attitude” earlier in the day.


After speaking with Miranda’s mother, Tanaes Washinawatok, Native News Network reported that Miranda’s teacher had yelled at her and slammed her hand down on a desk after hearing Miranda say two words in Menominee: Posoh, or hello, and Ketapanen, or I love you. Miranda told her mother that her teacher got angry with her for using a language she couldn’t understand, saying, "You are not to speak like that! How do I know you're not saying something bad? How would you like it if I spoke in Polish and you didn't understand?"


Gerald Hill, an Oneida Nation citizen from Wisconsin and president of the Santa Fe, New Mexico-based Indigenous Language Institute quickly criticized the attitudes of instructors and administrators at the Sacred Heart School in a letter published by Native News Network, writing, “Shawano is a small town several miles south of the Reservation. Like many off-reservation communities, there is a history of racist attitudes against Indians, although we like to think that the relations have improved. This incident shows that racism is alive and well. That this happened in a parochial religious school makes this a wake-up call for everyone who believed that America has moved beyond such displays of ignorance.”


Local media in Shawano and many regional newspaper and television outlets carried coverage of the story, and by February 1, Dan Minter, principal of Sacred Heart, sent home a letter with all students decrying the “perception by a student or family that this in any way promoted an atmosphere of cultural discrimination... If that perception was allowed to exist, then it is deeply regretted by Sacred Heart School and for that we apologize.”


Last week on February 22 Dr. Joseph Bound, director of education for the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, issued a public apology posted on the diocese website that read in part, “On behalf of the Diocese of Green Bay, I wish to apologize for the events that led up to, and have followed, the benching of Miranda for a basketball game at Sacred Heart School, in part, for her use of the Menominee language in school. We wish we could change how that was handled. The truth is that we cannot undo any damage that was inflicted and we are keenly aware of the emotions that have come to bear as fallout in this incident.”


Bound also emphasized that the diocese will now work to amend and improve cultural education and awareness in its schools, and issued an invitation to “all interested cultural groups ... to bring ideas and thoughts that can be crafted into an action plan that will bring cultural awareness and sensitivity to all our Catholic schools in the Diocese of Green Bay.” He concluded his open letter by asking "forgiveness for our actions that have inflicted heartache, pain and anger to all those who have felt these emotions over the past several weeks."


Organizers for an online petition will doubtless follow up to see that Bound’s good intentions are carried out locally. The petition “Tell Wisconsin that “Love” in Menominee is Not a Four-Letter Word” has already gathered more than 8,000 signatures and calls for Sacred Heart to “add American Indian languages and culture to their curriculum and stop violating rights of American Indian students.”


Cultural Survival’s International Mother Language Day announcement, sent to more than 11,000 supporters internationally, also linked to the petition, helping to generate additional signatures toward the goal of 20,000.

White House Issues Executive Order Promoting American Indian Education and Languages

January 18, 2012 - 9:07 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

At the December 2010 White House Tribal Nations Conference, President Obama became the first U.S. Head of State to enthusiastically endorse and commit to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Earlier administrations declined attendance (but often sent interns to take notes) at the annual U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which built international Indigenous coalitions for nearly three decades and worked within the U.N. system to draft and pass in 2007 the groundbreaking international human rights instrument as a baseline standard for nation states to abide by in their relations, interactions, and negotiations with Indigenous Peoples. Speaking to the elected leadership of the nation’s 565 federally recognized Indian tribes to close his annual Tribal Nations Conference, Obama announced on December 2, 2011 he was signing Executive Order 13592, “Improving American Indian and Alaska Native Educational Opportunities and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities.”


The brief five-part document affirms the “unique political and legal relationship with the federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) tribes across the country, as set forth in the Constitution of the United States, treaties, Executive Orders, and court decisions,” and foregrounds the Obama Administration’s “commitment to furthering tribal self-determination and to help ensure that AI/AN students have an opportunity to learn their Native languages and histories and receive complete and competitive educations that prepare them for college, careers, and productive and satisfying lives.” The National Indian Education Association (NIEA), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy organization issued a press release commending the President’s positive focus on tribal languages and educational outcomes, and noted its membership’s hope “that the Congress will carry forward these principles in its reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and will provide the appropriations necessary to ensure that the United States government’s trust responsibility to educate Indians is met.”


Throughout 2009-2010 Cultural Survival’s Endangered Languages Program collaborated with NIEA and more than a dozen Indigenous education organizations to declare Native languages in a state of emergency and push for an executive order (EO) specific to Native Language Revitalization. Led by the National Alliance to Save Native Languages and Cultural Survival’s Endangered Languages Program, the coalition passed two successive resolutions at the National Congress of American Indians annual conventions and even met briefly with key Obama administration officials who advise the President on education and Native American policy. These resolutions included the latest United Nations Educational, Scientific,and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) data on Indigenous languages remaining in the United States—139 spoken languages—and asked for the President’s immediate action at the cabinet level in supporting Native American languages. While these resolutions are not directly included in his latest EO, President Obama's active role in promoting Native student academic success is certainly unique among recent administrations. Twenty years have passed since the U.S. Congress adopted the Native American Languages Acts of 1990 and 1992, and in the intervening years Indigenous languages spoken within the U.S. have continued to atrophy and fall out of use, with only modest federal funding—approximately $12 million annually—available from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Native Americans to shore up local language revitalization efforts in tribal communities.

One Year Later: The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP)

December 1, 2011 - 8:43 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

While filming for WE STILL LIVE HERE: Âs Nutayuneân wrapped in summer 2010, editing, sound, and final touches to the finished documentary continued throughout the fall in preparation for the film’s public debut on the 2011 film festival circuit in January. The October 2011 launch of Our Mother Tongues as the film’s companion website, situated WLRP within the national context of the Native American language revitalization movement, and gave viewers of the national Independent Lens broadcast on PBS a window into a dozen diverse tribal communities from coast to coast—each with its own unique approach to implementing training programs and opportunities to produce fluent speakers, thus effectively extending the life of their local endangered mother tongue.


The tribal language programs featured on Our Mother Tongues are only a handful of the many hundreds growing and thriving among the 565 federally recognized American Indian tribes—and hundreds of state and locally recognized Indigenous communities—living throughout the United States and its territories. Our Mother Tongues will of course aim to add more programs to the site in the coming year, especially drawing from those already included in Cultural Survival’s Endangered Languages Program network of contacts among more than 300 Indigenous language programs.


One thing is certain: WLRP’s language work is proving to be a source of inspiration to many Indigenous communities, including those who must work to reclaim language through documentation, as well as for those tribes fortunate to still have living speakers. After the film’s screenings at festivals, language conferences, tribal colleges, community libraries, and in university classrooms, Q&A and discussion with audience members inevitably turns back to the recent progress made by Wampanoag language teachers and learners.


Read more about the latest and greatest from this tenacious community-based language project that is accomplishing what linguists like Noam Chomsky once considered “impossible!” In the latest issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly (CSQ), Endangered Languages Program Manager Jennifer Weston (Hunkpapa Lakota) and CSQ editor Barbara Sorenson profile WLRP’s master apprentice program in the magazine’s regular feature, “Women the World Must Hear: Awakening A Sleeping Language on Cape Cod.” The article explores language immersion methodologies like master apprentice programs that are creating successful language training environments for Indigenous communities, and also links to the Independent Television Service (ITVS) discussion guide for WE STILL LIVE HERE: Âs Nutayuneân, produced in collaboration with Cultural Survival’s Endangered Languages Program. Read the December 2011 CSQ article here.

A United Nations Declaration and a Proposed Executive Order on Native Language Revitalization

November 10, 2011 - 7:03 AM | by Our Mother Tongues

The international community marked the fourth anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples earlier this fall on September 13; however in the United States, the one-year anniversary of U.S. recognition of the landmark human rights instrument occurred in mid-December. 

At last winter’s second annual White House Tribal Nations Conference hosted by the Department of Interior, President Obama announced the U.S. would “lend its support” to the Declaration and recognize its baseline standards for human rights for Indigenous Peoples at home and abroad, stating further , “The aspirations it affirms—including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of Native peoples—are one we must always seek to fulfill.”

One critical issue addressed by the Declaration is language rights: Indigenous Peoples must have the ability to communicate publicly without fear of prejudice, to establish and control educational systems in tribal languages, and to pass on to future generations Indigenous languages, philosophies, and histories, and to retain Indigenous names “for communities, places, and persons.”  Language lies at the very heart of what makes us human, and rights to language education and transmission cannot be emphasized enough as they comprise not only the core of Indigenous cultural identities, but also the foundations for Indigenous Peoples’ status as distinct nations with inherent rights to self-determination.

Three key articles—among the Declaration’s 46—explicitly address language (see below); however, more than half of the document can be interpreted as reinforcing language rights when, for example, articles addressing rights to access and worship freely at traditional sacred sites and the rights to remain in tribal homelands without fear of forcible relocation “without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned” are considered fully.  After all, national policies mandating or prioritizing relocation and “forced assimilation and destruction of [Indigenous] culture” are what have brought tribal languages to their present state of critical endangerment. 

While federal laws such as the Native American Languages Acts of 1990 and 1992 offered encouraging and flattering statutory language about the “unique” and “integral” status of tribal languages, in reality, the acts’ promises to address the “lack of clear, comprehensive, and consistent Federal policy on treatment of Native American languages which has often resulted in acts of suppression and extermination of Native American languages and cultures” remain unfulfilled.  This is evidenced by the fact that presently—two decades after the acts’ passage—more than half of all remaining Native American languages are spoken fluently only among the most elderly generations in Native communities.  More than 70 beautiful spoken national treasures stand at the brink of an abyss of silence.

This past spring, on April 15, exactly four months after President Obama endorsed the U.N. Declaration, the Linguistic Society of America sent him a letter and formal resolution on behalf of their entire national membership asking for him to issue an emergency executive order on Native Language Revitalization.  Now, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the Obama Administration’s recognition of Indigenous rights to tribal homelands, languages, and cultures, via the Declaration, we should all join the LSA in calling for immediate targeted executive action to realize the potential for the Native American Languages Acts to finally end the “lack of clear, comprehensive, and consistent Federal policy” toward Native languages, and bring a close to centuries of federal English-only or English-first policies—whether deliberate or unintentional.  Tribes in the U.S. stand to lose too much in the coming five years and will need a clear, comprehensive, and consistent Federal policy to reinforce and reinvigorate Native language rights and the ability to teach new generations to speak these ancient mother tongues. 

Read the LSA’s letter and Resolution here:


Express your support for their efforts here: http://lsacelp.org/take-action/

or here:  http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact



Article 13

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.

2. States shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected and also to ensure that indigenous peoples can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.


Article 14

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.

2. Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination.

3. States shall, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take effective measures, in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children, including those living outside their communities, to have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language.

Article 16

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to establish their own media in their own languages and to have access to all forms of non-indigenous media without discrimination.

2. States shall take effective measures to ensure that State-owned media duly reflect indigenous cultural diversity. States, without prejudice to ensuring full freedom of expression, should encourage privately owned media to adequately reflect indigenous cultural diversity.



October 28, 2011 - 5:32 AM | by Our Mother Tongues

Indigenous Peoples’ diverse languages have developed over many thousands of years in close relationship to their ancestral tribal homelands. These many hundreds of languages—scholars estimate as many as 300-500 Indigenous languages were once spoken in North America—carry detailed knowledge and observations of the natural world, including place names often displaced by much more recent English-language monikers such as Mato Tipila (“Bear Lodge,” in Lakota), renamed “Devil’s Tower” by settlers and the National Park Service. Those first settlers obviously knew the location to be a sacred and powerful ceremonial site to dozens of tribes—and myriad locations from the east to west coast are branded “devils'” places in reference to the Native peoples who once worshipped there enjoying full religious freedom.

While 139 Indigenous languages are miraculously still spoken today in the U.S.—according to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger—more than 70 are spoken only by the oldest generations of tribal citizens. Some linguists estimate scarcely two dozen Native languages will still be spoken by mid-century; however, a dedicated Native American languages movement has worked for decades to document, publish in, and promote Native language materials and usage among younger generations. This work follows centuries of overt language discrimination and suppression by settlers and religious denominations who actively worked to exterminate Indian languages and cultures beginning in New England the early 1630s with the first grammar schools and “praying towns” providing refuge and “education” to Indian families and students.  

Later, federally funded Indian boarding schools were opened by the U.S. War Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (the Bureau was later moved to the Department of Interior) with an explicit goal to “kill the Indian, save the man,” and children from hundreds of tribes were removed from their communities for years at a time to be trained largely as an agricultural, domestic, and industrial labor force.  Even into the 1970s and 80s, Native children were often harshly punished or ridiculed for speaking their mother tongues, and as a result, successive generations of tribal peoples did not teach their children their heritage languages in order to shield them from the discrimination and corporal punishment they experienced.  Today’s Native language teachers and students still face unfair certification and testing practices mandated by more than a decade of prohibitive No Child Left Behind Act regulations, which have continued to undermine Native language classrooms and schools.

Now, with a sense of great urgency, those tribal communities with only a handful of speakers—including the Euchee, Wampanoag, and Sauk—work every day to train new generations of speakers via intensive language education activities including master-apprentice programs, language immersion classrooms, and intergenerational home-based “language nests” and daycare programs like those pioneered by the Maori and Native Hawaiian language communities.  Roughly a dozen speakers of the Wampanoag language—reclaimed from written records including the first bible published in the western hemisphere, and by careful comparison with related languages in the Algonquian “family”—have emerged  after more than fifteen years of intensive community-based efforts to return the language to their nation. 

Linguists group similar and sometimes mutually intelligible languages that share historic characteristics into “families,” but these designations are imprecise simply because so little is still known about these ancient languages.  And while a dozen major language families encompass scores of tribal tongues, more than twenty languages are simply known as “isolates,” unrelated to any others in the Americas.  There is much to be learned and rediscovered by tribal citizens and rising generations now finally free to speak and actively use mother tongues in public, even while public and tribal schools are still often hobbled by uncooperative state and federal regulations.  All Indigenous languages—and Indigenous Peoples’ rights to speak, transmit, and educate their children in these languages—are now protected by an international human rights framework adopted less than one year ago by the United States:  the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  For Native Americans, this is a giant leap forward to protect ancient tongues too long labeled as “backward” impediments to our “progress.”

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