Our Mother Tongues Blog

Guest Blog by Cultural Survival Endangered Languages Program summer intern Laura Garbes

June 7, 2012 - 12:39 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

Great Resources for Learning about Native Language Revitalization


As a new CS intern, I’ve watched several films that gave me a helpful background on issues of Indigenous rights and language revitalization efforts both in the US and abroad. Though the films differ in content—from community radio efforts in Guatemala to U.S. tribal efforts in immersion schooling for children—the basic feelings of urgency to revitalize languages in jeopardy transcend individual situations. These documentaries are great starting points for any individuals curious about the state of Native languages around the globe today. The resources also outline what exactly language revitalization is and why it is so important for Natives and non-natives alike. I’ve provided a list below of these resources, suitable for anyone looking to expand their knowledge on native languages and their importance in our world today.


1.  WHY SAVE A LANGUAGE? Directed by Sally Thompson and produced by University of Montana’s Regional Learning Project


This documentary, about a half hour in length, provides an overview of language revitalization, incorporating citizens from several tribes who each give their own perspective on why language revitalization is crucial for their respective tribes and in general. Despite the disparate situations facing each tribe, there are several common sentiments shared inter-tribally. The groups encountered in these videos all agree that languages shape and reflect cultural identity; thus, to know a language is, in a way, to have ownership of an experience, of a different reality. It is a blueprint for thinking that influences and shapes how we see and interact with the world around us.


What’s more, the documentary calls to mind and challenges views of those that feel as though English is the language of patriotism, and that it asserts one’s identity as an American. A tribal member made the point that this “speak English or leave” sentiment common in the narrative of US history is especially invalid in the case of Native Americans and their tribal languages, begging the question, to where would these tribes leave, considering the Americas is the origin point of their languages? In reality, when compared to tribal languages, English is actually the foreign language later introduced to the region. When taking this perspective, we can see that tribal languages, many of which are endangered, deserve special reverence as original languages of the Americas.


One tribal member interviewed in the documentary stressed the invaluable wisdom contained within each language. He laments the loss of linguistic diversity with an apt comparison to a burning library, remarking, “Intelligent people don’t burn down libraries.” Yet, what we are doing in allowing languages to die out is essentially watching repositories of knowledge quickly disappear from our generation’s grasp. These shared sentiments are consistent throughout the following region-specific films.


2.  WE STILL LIVE HERE: Âs Nutayuneân from Makepeace Productions, produced with the assistance of Cultural Survival’s Endangered Languages Program


Director Anne Makepeace’s documentary explores the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project in particular. The Wampanoag case is special because over a century had gone by without any speakers of the Wampanoag language before any language revitalization efforts took place. Yet, the WLRP owes much success to a singular determination among the Wampanoag Nation’s citizens in Massachusetts. Tribal members reflecting on the project’s founding recall that, while they were still in the deliberation stages, there were no people on the committee saying “no, don't bother.” All were interested, making possible all the successful efforts in Mashpee, MA, like the daily master-apprentice program, weekly community-based classes, summer youth camps, and an annual three-day language immersion camp for families.


Jessie Littledoe, who spearheaded the Wampanoag language revitalization efforts, explains specifically how their tribal language is a repository of the wisdom of their elders. For instance, the structure of the language divides animate and inanimate nouns. Within this system, the moon was labeled animate and the sun inanimate; thus, it can be inferred that the Wampanoag peoples, upon development of their language, had a high grasp of astronomical principles. In addition, the unique point of view that speaking a particular language provides is beautifully illustrated in the Wampanoag expression of losing their land rights. The literal translation of a person losing land rights is “I fall down,” as in, to fall off your feet and have no ground under you. This is an idiomatic expression that correlates with the fact that, seeing as there were no horses or carriages in the pre-Columbian era, their feet never left the ground, in the literal sense. The containment of this subtle information within a single phrase is something that would be lost in translation without the language itself existing in spoken form today. Thus, the revival of the language was a revival of the culture as well as its nuances.


3.  A short film on the Sauk language revitalization project, Kîmâchipena: Let’s Come Together from the Sauk Language Department and filmmaker Jenni Monet


Another specific language project documentary is Kîmâchipena: Let’s Come Together, which outlines the language revitalization efforts of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma to revive Sauk. Their efforts to pilot a preschool immersion classroom have been successful because of the collective will of the Sauk people, who all wish to talk Sauk because the language that belongs to their people. Like the other revitalization projects of its kind, their community-based language work has brought with it an assertion of identity, to fight against the assimilation that dissolves their own cultural norms.


The video introduces Sauk members of all ages, each holding up a sign about their connection to Sauk. There were some that, in their words, asserted, “I talk Sauk.” But for the most part, the members made declarations of a desire to learn “I want to talk Sauk,” “English is not my language,” or “I want to speak my language.” The solidarity among age groups and between different fluency levels of Sauk is a manifestation of the will needed to fuel an undertaking as ambitious as this community’s project. It speaks to the truth that strong community support and participation is necessary in carrying out any project as extensive as preserving or revitalizing an entire language. The Sauk language film is powerful because the English language only appears as subtitles or on signs, but is never spoken. Watch the film at TalkSauk.com


4.  To learn about the Euchee (Yuchi) Language Project watch the short film sôKAnAnô: We Are Still Here online at yuchilanguage.org


The Euchee/ Yuchi Language Project outlined in sôKAnAnô: We Are Still Here is unique in that the language is an isolate and has no linguistic relatives, making it more difficult to recover lost words as has been done in the case of the Wampanoag language. The fact that there is just one Native male speaker and a handful of other Yuchi speakers left makes the call to revive the language all the more time-sensitive. It is particularly striking to listen to the last first-language male speaker of Yuchi express his earnest desire to pass on his language. His commentary provides a very concrete example of the imminent extinction of a language if no action is taken.


5.  Democratizando la Palabra: la Radio Comunitaria en Guatemala (Voices of Democracy: Community Radio in Guatemala)


The final video I watched during orientation was created by Cultural Survival, Democratizando la Palabra: la Radio Comunitaria en Guatemala (Voices of Democracy: Community Radio in Guatemala). The video explains the Guatemalan Community Radio Project, one of CS’s main programs. It highlights the importance of community radio in Guatemala in fostering linguistic diversity, because local radio stations are the only ones that broadcast in Indigenous languages, which are community-specific. The video then points out all efforts by the Guatemalan government to stifle this form of free speech. The video lends an international perspective on the rights of linguistic minorities, and helps demonstrate that the struggles are universal and not just limited to a single country or region. To learn more about the project visit the CS Community Radio Project online.


There is much to be learned from each and every Native language. With the danger of their extinction, we are also in danger of losing the capability to draw from these fountains of wisdom. By providing the voices of tribal members and leaders, these five videos give informed perspectives from those who have experienced the trials, tribulations, and successes of revitalization efforts firsthand. It is by no means an exhaustive list of resources on Native language revitalization, but I hope this list of films will give you some background as well as whet your curiosity on the topic, as it did mine.

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