Our Mother Tongues Blog

Ariel View of the Ancient Chilkoot Trail

October 28, 2019 - 1:50 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

Humans have been following some of the same walking and hunting trails for thousands of years. Have you ever stopped to think about which of them are the oldest?

We did research to finding the oldest trails in the world and narrowed them down our eight favorite. What makes them our favorite? We were looking for the right combination of age, interesting locations, and historical importance, as well as geographic diversity.

Check out this beautiful map of the Chilkoot Trail

The Chilkoot Trail is a through-way protected for centuries by the native Tlingit tribe. Finally discovered by gold prospectors in the 1880s, this trail offered a shorter, direct route to the Canadian interior where the gold rush was booming. Ready to risk everything in their search for gold, these men braved the more precarious, steep mountain pass taking along with them one TON of supplies. It was a necessity for surviving the treacherous terrain and the frighteningly cold Canadian winters. What would you do for a Klondike Bar (of gold)?

» Visit the original article and scroll down to Map #6

» Learn more about the Chilkoot Trail and its history


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

Yurok Language Featured in NYT

April 14, 2014 - 7:18 AM | by Our Mother Tongues

This weekend the New York Times profiled the successes experienced by the Yurok Language Program in offering instruction to students in four public high schools and two elementary schools in northern California.

"No other Native American language is believed to be taught in as many public schools in California as Yurok, a fact that serves to widen the circle of speakers and perhaps to secure the next generation of teachers," reports NYT writer Norimitsu Onishi. 

Read the full article, "In California, Saving a Language that Predates Spanish and English" online at the New York Times: www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/us/in-california-saving-a-language-that-predates-spanish-and-english.html?hpw&rref=us&_r=1

An Exultation of California Indian Languages

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

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.

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.


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