Did you know throughout North America there are over 25 million speakers of approximately 800 indigenous languages?[i] Of those 800 plus languages, only about ten are considered secure. The remaining 790 or so are considered threatened or endangered. The level of endangerment a language faces is based on several factors, including the size of the population that speaks that language, the number of individuals who link their ethnic identity to that language, the use of second languages or use of a particular language as a second language, the attitude towards the language within the community, the age range of speakers, as well as several other levels of use (for information on the classification of endangered languages, see http://www.ethnologue.com/endangered-languages). If steps are not taken to revitalize these languages, many can and will be lost within a generation or two.
This semester, I am taking Language and Culture with Prof. Donna Perry in the Anthropology Department here at Gettysburg College. The last few classes examined the death of languages. I apologize if my post seems overly general—I want to focus specifically on one example of a native group fighting to revitalize their language, but first, I need to discuss in brief what has led to the death of so many languages in North America.
Many indigenous people have been forced to give up their mother tongues because of assimilation policies that the United States and other governments have enacted. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States government passed legislation that required Native Americans to move from their traditional lands onto parcels of land set aside—reservations. The treaties signed between the US government and many indigenous nations (notably the 1867 Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek and the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie among others) also required that Native Americans send their children to government–run boarding schools.[ii] These policies, designed to integrate the indigenous population to the settlers’ culture, resulted in the genocide of entire populations.
At these boarding schools, children were forbidden from speaking their native languages. Through pain and humiliation, they were forced to use English: any use of a native tongue resulted in a beating. Many people who were forced into the boarding schools, bit-by-bit, forgot their language. When they had children, they elected not to teach their children their native languages because of the associated stigma. They loved their children and did not want their children to experience the pain they had gone through.
Many of the last speakers of the incredibly endangered languages native to North America are elderly. Often less than ten fluent speakers remain for many of the endangered languages. Most adults and middle-aged people are not able to use their native language to communicate, and are thus unable to transfer the language to a younger generation.
But not all hope is lost.
The Indigenous Language Institute (ILI) is committed to reviving endangered languages while speakers are still alive in order to pass on their knowledge by using tools and training to help indigenous groups revive their languages within their own communities.[iii] Their work is urgent, and many of the 800 languages present in North America may disappear within 10 years if the Institute’s work is not successful.
One group of indigenous people working with the ILI is the Pueblo Nation. In 2009 the Santa Fe Prep School announced the creation of a Self-Study Curriculum wherein a group of teens from Tewa Pueblos would study Tewa alongside a mentor.[iv] Their experiences are documented in the film The Young Ancestors. In this documentary five teenagers describe their efforts to learn the language of their ancestors. Jeremy Montoya describes how his fluency has increased, and how he is now able to understand the elders’ prayers at Tewa ceremonies.[v] For Jeremy Montoya and the other teens involved in this project, learning their traditional language is important because without their language, their traditions and ceremonies lose meaning. To learn more about their struggle and their triumphs, watch The Young Ancestors, available through Musselman Library right here on campus.
[i] Native Languages of the Americas
2013 Native Languages of the Americas: Preserving and promoting American Indian languages. http://www.native-languages.org/. Accessed 29 September 2014.
[ii] William T. Hagan Norman
2011 Assimilation Policy. The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.na.008. Accessed 29 September 2014.
[iii] Indigenous Language Institute
2009 Indigenous Language Institute. www.ilinative.org. Accessed 29 September 2014.
[iv] Camino Verite Films
The Young Ancestors Synopsis. http://theyoungancestors.com/TheYoungAncestors/About_the_Film_files/YoungAncestorsEPK.pdf. Accessed 29 September 2014.
[v] Aimee Barry Broustra, Dir.
The Young Ancestors. Camino Verite Films. Santa Fe, NM.