Our Mother Tongues Blog

Speaking Our Mother Tongues at the Language Is Life Conference

September 27, 2013 - 8:18 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

An Exultation of California Indian Languages

September 27, 2013 - 8:14 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

The Revival of Wampanoag: Listen to the Podcast

July 30, 2013 - 5:03 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

Listen to the WQRC podcast (click here) and learn more about the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project's plans to launch a Wampanoag Language Public Charter School in August 2015. Curriculum Specialist Nitana Hicks, Project Administrator Judi Urquhart, and Charter Coordinator Jennifer Weston join WQRC's Kathryn Eident on the Sunday Journal podcast. Enjoy!


Reviving the Yurok language

July 15, 2013 - 3:28 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

Marc Martin and Lee Romney of the Los Angeles Times

EUREKA, Calif. — Carole Lewis throws herself into her work as if something big was at stake.

“Pa’-ah,” she tells her Eureka High School class, gesturing at a bottle of water. She whips around and doodles a crooked little fish on the blackboard, hinting at the dip she’s prepared with “ney-puy” — salmon, key to the diet of California’s largest Native American tribe.

For thousands of years before Western settlers arrived, the Yurok thrived in dozens of villages along the Klamath River. By the 1990s, however, academics had predicted their language soon would be extinct. As elders passed away, the number of native speakers dropped to six.

But tribal leaders would not let the language die.

Last fall, Eureka High became the fifth and largest school in Northern California to launch a Yurok-language program, marking the latest victory in a Native language revitalization program widely lauded as the most successful in the state.

At last count, there were more than 300 basic Yurok speakers, 60 with intermediate skills, 37 who are advanced and 17 who are considered conversationally fluent.

If all goes as planned, Lewis' 20 students will move on to a second year of study, satisfying the world language requirement for admission to University of California and Cal State schools.

But the teacher and tribe have some longer-term goals: boosting Native American high school graduation rates and college admissions numbers; deepening the Yurok youths' bonds to their culture; and ensuring that their language will regain prominence after half a century of virtual silence.

The decimation of the language dates to the first half of the 20th century, when tens of thousands of Native American youngsters across the country, Lewis' mom among them, were sent to government-run boarding schools. The effort to assimilate the youth into Euro-American culture pressed them to abandon their own. Often they were beaten for speaking in their native tongues.

»»» Read the complete article and enjoy a video & slideshow on
The Frameworks Page of the Los Angeles Times

Endangered Languages Update: Summer Language Programs

January 26, 2013 - 8:01 AM | by Our Mother Tongues

Tribal language programs nationwide have begun summer program preparations for a range of community language immersion and teacher training opportunities. Among Cultural Survival’s advisor programs, the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project and Euchee (Yuchi) Language Project, will offer multi-week language camps for youth focused on building conversational skills and ceremonial vocabulary to engage students as future community cultural leaders. During Summer 2012 Cultural Survival helped sponsor daily youth classes at the Euchee House in Sapulpa, OK, and the first annual Euchee Language Bowl competition. On Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Cultural Survival’s Endangered Languages program co-sponsored the Summer Turtle Camp for three dozen students who participated in traditional tribal fishing, clambake, and other food ways, along with crafts, and daily language lessons including songs, prayers, and performances for their families—and the Governor of Massachusetts on the final day of camp. This summer Cultural Survival is again seeking donors to co-sponsor these invaluable summer youth language and ceremonial training opportunities which are creating new generations Indigenous language speakers and future community leaders.

Read complete article at CulturalSurvival.org


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.

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.


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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