Our Mother Tongues Blog

Saving Native American Languages

October 31, 2014 - 7:00 AM | by Our Mother Tongues

by Colleen M. Fitzgerald
Professor of Linguistics and Director of the Native American Languages Lab at The University of Texas at Arlington
Originally in the Huffington Post

Language and Native Americans are in the news as media outlets around the nation announce that they will no longer use the "R" word in conjunction with Washington's NFL franchise.

They join a groundswell of public opinion against the current mascot, ranging from #NotYourMascot activism on Twitter to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceling the team's trademarks for being "disparaging to Native Americans."

But this isn't the only fight out there with Native American languages at the forefront. Two bipartisan bills are under consideration in Congress: the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act (H.R.4214/S.1948) and the Native American Languages Reauthorization Act of 2014 (H.R.726/S.2299). If passed, the bills will profoundly impact on the revitalization of Native American languages and the education of Native American youth.

Urgent action is needed. These two bills provide key financial and legislative support for Native American language revitalization. Not a single Native American language is deemed "safe" for survival according to UNESCO's Atlas of World Languages in Danger.

President Obama has joined the chorus supporting Native American languages. On his recent trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Lakota Language Nest immersion students sang the Lakota Flag Song to him. Lakota is one of 11 Native American languages in the best possible category for continuance -- UNESCO puts it in the "vulnerable" category. The remaining 180 languages are in even greater states of endangerment.

Read the complete article in the Huffington Post

Alaska OKs Bill Making Native Languages Official

April 24, 2014 - 12:54 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

If you're so inclined, and able, you could soon speak Tlingit, Inupiaq, or Siberian Yupik in Alaska with the knowledge that those and 18 other languages, including English, are officially recognized by the state. Alaska's Legislature approved a bill giving them that status Monday.

Its backers say the largely symbolic bill is a statement about equality. The legislation, House Bill 216, clarifies that it "does not require or place a duty or responsibility on the state or a municipal government to print a document or record or conduct a meeting, assembly, or other government activity in any language other than English."

But the bill does put 20 Alaska Native languages on a par with English, which as NPR member station KTOO reports was made the official language of the state by a 1998 voter initiative.

"That's all we want is equal value," Lance Twitchell, a professor of Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast tells KTOO. "And there's nothing wrong with standing up and saying that. It takes a lot of courage to do that. And it takes a lot of something else to try and go against that."

The bill was endorsed in Alaska's House of Representatives last week, in a 38-0 vote. To ensure its passage before the current legislative session, supporters of the bill organized a 15-hour sit-in at the Capitol that started around noon Sunday. In the early hours of Monday, the Alaska Senate approved it 18-2.

The language bill may be symbolic, but to some of the folks who spoke to KTOO, it means a lot.

Read the whole NPR Article

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.

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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