Our Mother Tongues Blog


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.”

Comments (13) -

Allison Wolf
11/9/2011 12:57:37 PM #

This is a great story.

Mark Roest
11/12/2011 11:20:31 PM #

A friend of mine who is familiar with Hangul, the Korean phonetic alphabet that is based on the way vocal sounds are produced, translated the book by King Seijan, who invented it along with his 'brain trust' of scholars, in the early 1500s, explaining how they did it. From this work, he understands how to extend the alphabet to sounds that are not in Korean (or Chinese) speech.

This opens the door to using a consistent alphabet among multiple languages, making it easier to learn each, so that intercultural mutual support can develop even further among First Nation cultures. Later, it would facilitate preparing a multilingual computer-based dictionary, and translation engines. My friend also created a translation engine he uses for scholar-level work with classic Chinese texts -- currently the Taoist Canon, which has many shamanic elements. He has offered to make the translation engine accessible to groups wanting to add language pairs to it (other than Chinese, which he reserves for himself).

Please let me know if there is any interest in exploring these possibilities, or if you have any questions.

Victoria Villa-Lobos
11/16/2011 12:06:55 PM #

This work is crucial to unifying so many hearts & minds across the globe.  I hope to be able to help in some way.  

Daniel J. Brillant
11/17/2011 10:34:43 PM #

The work that you are performing on this site and in your daily lives is an extremely important effort.  Do not be discouraged.  Continue to delve into the depths of your histories so that we human beings can reconnect with the ancient heritages of our planet.  Do not let anger overtake your compassion.  Allow the words and sounds and definitions and traditions to reestablish our purpose(s) here, and realign us with our heritages both on a physical and spiritual level.  Allow your new found knowledge to illustrate and reanimate your meditations and dreams and overall understandings of birth, life, love, and death.  Your passion is well appreciated to members of the human family as well as your own tribal lineages.  And although my most recent heritage is void of Native American genes, the love of your undertaking has invigorated my appetite for a deeper connection with the peoples and cultures of this land-mass as well as our neighbor to the south.   So, please continue your research and development and instruction; allowing compassion and truth to guide you towards The Source of life in all of it's forms.           P.S. I loved the story about the first woman and man being made of stone and then pine trees!      Peace and love.

Richard Zane Smith
11/22/2011 5:49:09 PM #

kweh omateru' (greetings friends) iyatoh tizhameh (i say thank you)
I'm living in a community where our language was dormant, replaced by english, our songs  replaced by generic pow-wow songs and hymns, our cyclic ceremonies replaced by sunday morning church services and euro-american holidays. No speakers are left, but still we have PILES of written material and also existing sister languages, the Wyandot language "wandat" CAN be revived...if the people want it....and the question is  still "if"
I've been introducing our wandat language (with the help of linguists)in the public school here for almost 7 years. from preK-4th grade, we sing our lessons to a waterdum, learning sentence structure, and tiny sparks are reigniting. Even OLD songs once thought dead, are found on old wax cylinders and are being re-sung, dances re-danced...and yes even ceremonies are being revived.

Difficult work,and all volunteer. Wyandot(te) have not made language recovery a priority.
Its often discouraging, and sometimes i wonder if its even worth the effort, but after a dance, or after a day at the school..at least there is a sense that EVEN if this work is futile...its still GOOD.
tizhameh,(thanks for letting me post!)
Richard Zane Smith (Sohahiyoh)
Wyandotte, Oklahoma

Rashmi Rich
1/8/2012 5:44:29 PM #

I'm so glad that so much richness of feelings, thoughts and ways of looking at this world and beyond is going to be preserved and shared! Thanks for your work and dedication!

1/14/2012 8:56:21 PM #

thanks for this

1/17/2012 1:52:47 AM #

thanks for this

1/25/2012 1:02:34 AM #


terry packineau
2/21/2012 10:05:09 PM #

who will help us as our dying language.hidatsa,mandan and arikara stop the end.

Daniel Salau
3/22/2012 1:47:38 AM #

This is great work,keep it up. We must save the indigenous languages, cultures and knowledge against globalization, and by extension, we will have saved the world!
We have also established a Center for Indigenous Languages and Cultural Studies in Kenya and currently we have Maasai Language classes attended mainly by People of Maasai descent who have been over time assimilated into other dominant tribes. We don't have to wait for an extinction of a language before acting. Join us in this effort.

Improve English Grammar Online
7/5/2012 12:05:18 PM #

This perform is essential to unifying so many hearts and thoughts & thoughts across the planet.  I wish to be able to help in some way.  

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Business English online courses
7/11/2012 11:19:43 AM #

The work that you are doing on this website and in your life is an essential attempt.This is a fantastic tale.

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