Our Mother Tongues Blog

The Indigenous Language Challenge

November 6, 2014 - 12:24 PM | 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

People are posting videos where they take on dramatic challenges and tag others to join in. It's an energetic effort to raise awareness...to use Native American languages. The 2014 Indigenous Language Challenge is on. Comedian Tonia Jo Hall, a Lakota teacher in training, posted a video of her young daughter singing in Lakota. "Whatever your native language is, we challenge you to post a 10-15 sec video no matter what it is as long as you're speaking your language," Hall wrote. She's not the only Native American language activist, learner, or teacher to promote indigenous language use via social media video challenges.

Many of these videos come from adults who are second language learners. For many years, government-run boarding schools in both the U.S. and Canada took children from Native families. This had an immense effect on Native language acquisition. Children lost priceless years of daily home environments with parents and grandparents communicating to them in their language. Home is where children's language development thrives and grows, and where children acquire the many different speech forms that express the human experience. What gets lost? So much, from the everyday language of instructions, telling jokes, or a recipe, to the ritual language of prayers, ceremonial speeches, or sharing stories of the ancestors. For too many families, the home language shifted to English, to the detriment of Native American language and culture. Educational policies were one of the factors that accelerated shift to English, resulting in Native languages becoming endangered languages. 

Read the complete article in the Huffington Post

President Obama mentions the importance of language and culture at a visit to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

July 18, 2014 - 7:56 AM | by Our Mother Tongues

Last month the President and Mrs. Obama visited Cannonball, North Dakota, on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation for an afternoon during Cannonball's annual Flag Day Wacipi, or celebration.

Cannonball is one of eight community districts on the sprawling reservation that spans the North and South Dakota border and is nearly the size of Connecticut. The Obama's were met in Bismarck, ND, by ND Senator Heidi Heitkamp who accompanied them by helicopter to Cannonball, where the first couple sat down at the local school with six youth leaders from across the reservation to hear their stories of growing up in a rural community that has long struggled to create adequate jobs for the reservation economy. The young people shared their pride in their Lakota and Dakota culture and language, and their experiences growing up attending ancient religious ceremonies once outlawed by the federal government, as well as stories of their dreams for the future, and of the many challenges they've faced in their young lives -- including losing friends and relatives to suicide, and of of parents' and loved ones' struggles with addiction. The first couple was greeted by thunderous applause upon entering the Wacipi, where crowds had been waiting since late morning for their arrival after being bused to the event and passing through Secret Service security checkpoints. Dancers and drum groups from across the Dakotas were waiting to perform intertribal social songs for the Obamas, and the five year-olds from the Sitting Bull College Language Nest were on hand with their teachers Thipiziwin Young and Tom Red Bird to sing the Lakota Flag Song.

AMERICA’S ORIGINAL LANGUAGES

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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