Saving Native American Languages

Language and Native Americans are in the news as media outlets around the nation announce that they will no longer use the "R" word in conjunction with Washington's NFL franchise.

They join a groundswell of public opinion against the current mascot, ranging from #NotYourMascot activism on Twitter to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceling the team's trademarks for being "disparaging to Native Americans."

But this isn't the only fight out there with Native American languages at the forefront. Two bipartisan bills are under consideration in Congress: the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act (H.R.4214/S.1948) and the Native American Languages Reauthorization Act of 2014 (H.R.726/S.2299). If passed, the bills will profoundly impact on the revitalization of Native American languages and the education of Native American youth.

Urgent action is needed. These two bills provide key financial and legislative support for Native American language revitalization. Not a single Native American language is deemed "safe" for survival according to UNESCO's Atlas of World Languages in Danger.

President Obama has joined the chorus supporting Native American languages. On his recent trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Lakota Language Nest immersion students sang the Lakota Flag Song to him. Lakota is one of 11 Native American languages in the best possible category for continuance -- UNESCO puts it in the "vulnerable" category. The remaining 180 languages are in even greater states of endangerment.

Language is essential to our humanity, fundamental for expressing culture and encoding traditional knowledge.

In a July town hall meeting, President Obama noted that:

[W]hat happens when you start losing your language and you start losing your culture and you don't have a sense of connections to ancestors and those memories that date back generations is you start feeling adrift. And if you're living in a society that devalues that, then you start maybe devaluing yourself and internalizing some of those doubts.

That both Native American Languages bills have bipartisan support is impressive. Co-sponsors come from states where Native languages are spoken, taught, promoted, and most especially, valued, such as Alaska, Montana, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, among others. House Resolution 4214 is sponsored by Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, a tribe actively engaged on behalf of their language, but one that is severely endangered with 70 or fewer fluent speakers.

In truth, the vitality of all U.S. Native American languages is a dicey proposition. A number of languages already have lost their last fluent speaker. For other languages, only a handful of elderly speakers remain. In many Native American communities, these elderly speakers contribute their expertise to tribal language programs that cherish them as their greatest resource and treasure.

The Sauk Language Department in Oklahoma recently mourned the passing of Maxine Cobb, one of the three fluent speakers remaining of Sauk. As a 'Master' teacher in their Master-Apprentice Program, she passed her language on to young adult apprentices, who now in turn learn and teach the language at high schools and in the community. Only two Sauk elderly speakers are left.

Learning a language in the home as an infant and toddler is the easiest route to fluency. Daily activities and interactions centered on that language help children learn to conjugate verbs, to build complex sentences and eventually to converse in that language. The ideal teachers are not really teachers at all, but parents and people of a child-rearing age who use the language in their home to sing lullabies, play games and tell bedtime stories.

The Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act and the Native American Languages Reauthorization Act of 2014 would provide critical funding necessary to pay for immersion schools and other programs to help keep the languages vital and to ground education in tribal language and culture. Native American languages are unique, distinct, and spoken nowhere else on earth, part of this nation's heritage. Surely their survival is worth our support.

To learn more about the congressional legislation and how you can support Native American Languages and their use in immersion schools, visit the Linguistic Society of America webpage.