Revitalizing Native Cultures


Felicia Johnson studies the Cherokee language for her part in the Junior Miss Cherokee Pageant, which she won.Felicia Johnson studies the Cherokee language for
her part in the Junior Miss Cherokee Pageant,
which she won.

In A Seat at the Drum, Pechanga tribal chief Mark Macarro explains why he took the time to teach himself his tribal language — "[Language] is really a key to the soul of the culture."

Many Native American leaders assert that the key to preserving indigenous cultures is the preservation of the tribal language. In the Navajo creation story, the world was "thought and spoken into existence." First Boy and First Girl are metaphors for thought and speech, and so the Word formed the world by building a giant Hogan with four supporting beams anchored in each sacred mountain.

When the Europeans arrived on the North American continent, there were hundreds of languages spoken. In 1995, there were only 175 that were still being spoken, and only 20 of them were being taught to children within the Native community. We don't even know what we've lost. Our best guess is that 200 to 300 languages have disappeared without a trace. Others survived just long enough to be described and perhaps recorded by 20th century linguists. Languages like the Mohican in Wisconsin, Catawba in South Carolina, Natchez in Louisiana, Mashpi in Massachusetts and Yahi in California exist in dusty tomes and, sometimes, on scratchy old recordings.

The skeptic might say, "So what? What difference does it make if the language and cultural expressions of some ancient tribe are lost in an age of one dominant super power? You'd better know English and understand the American language and economy if you want to get ahead."

The death of a Native language matters most because that language is part of the rooted identity of the members of that tribe. The loss of the language means that ceremonies are no longer performed in the language. Stories are no longer told. Even if the stories have been translated into English, much of the meaning has been lost. There are concepts that don't translate into English. A native person's unique way of understanding the world has been lost.

Across the country, there are now innovative programs dedicated to revitalizing Native languages. Some tribes are using casino money to set up language immersion programs where young students speak the language all day with elders who learned it at home. Other tribes, like the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, have language programs both for school children and for their parents. The hope is that Cherokee will again be spoken in the homes of the Cherokee Nation.

Some tribes, like the Tongva in Los Angeles, are going back to old records and wax cylinder recordings to recreate their language from scratch.

The Mashantucket Pequot tribe in Massachusetts has turned to a rare Bible translated into Pequot in the 1600s to recreate their language. There are only three known copies of the Bible still in existence. The tribe is also using the diaries of early missionaries to find words and phrases.

The Pequot project is supported by the small Endangered Language Fund at Yale University. There are a few other private foundations interested in Native American language revitalization, but the federal Bilingual Education Act — which supported Native American language programs between 1968 and 2002 — was killed by the No Child Left Behind law.

Revitalizing Native languages and cultures is a day-to-day struggle against the overpowering influence of the larger American culture.

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