As fewer and fewer children speak their Native languages, many parents and grandparents are becoming increasingly concerned that their languages soon will lose fluent speakers, and with the language their culture will be lost. In response, efforts are being made across the Americas to revitalize indigenous languages. One of the problems with revitalization, however, is that there are so many languages and they can be very dissimilar. Linguists have divided North American indigenous languages into six or more major language phyla (large related groups of languages). The following is a list of widely accepted phyla with some sample languages from each group:
- Eskimo-Aleut includes the "Eskimo" family of languages, such as Inuit and Yupik and the Aleut family.
- Na-Dené, or Eyak-Athabaskan, includes more than forty Athapaskan (Athabaskan) languages, extending from Tanaina in Alaska, Dogrib and Sekani in Canada, to Apache, Hupa, Navajo (Diné), and Umpqua in the Southwest of the United States.
- Salishan encompasses Pacific coastal groups from British Columbia to Oregon, as well as Flathead, Kalispel, and Spokane in Idaho and Montana.
- Cochimí-Yuman, in Upper and Lower (Baja) California and Arizona, takes in Havasupai, Walapai, Yavapai, and Mojave.
- Aztec-Tanoan is made up of Uto-Aztecan, one of the largest language families spoken from Oregon to Panama (some members are Comanche, Paiute, Shoshoni, Hopi, Pima, Tarahumara, and Náhuatl), as well as the Kiowa-Tanoan family.
- Macro-Siouan is made up of the Siouan family of Assiniboine, Catawaba, Dakota, Ho Chunk (Winnebago), Crow, and Mandan; the Iroquoian family, including Cherokee, Tuscarora, Huronian, Seneca, and Mohawk; and the Caddoan family, including Caddoan, Pawnee and Wichita.
- Macro–Algonkian is made up of the Algonquian family, spread from California to the East Coast and from Canada to Mexico (some of this family's members are Arapahos, Blackfoot, Cheyennes, Crees, Fox, Kickapoos, Menominees, Ojibwas, Shawnees, Miamis, and Yuroks), and the Gulf Branch families, including Alabama, Chicksaw, Choctaw, and Seminole (adapted from Midgette 1997 and Campbell 1997).
In addition, isolates exist, such as Zuni, that resist classification into the larger American Indian language groups. While there have been attempts to link some American Indian languages to current European and Asian languages, including Welsh and Japanese, these efforts have been uniformly rejected by the vast majority of linguists for lack of evidence.
James Estes (1999) lists 154 indigenous American languages still spoken in the United States with Navajo having the most speakers (148,530), followed by Ojibwa with 35,000 speakers, Dakota with 20,355, Choctaw with 17,890, Apache with 12,693, and Cherokee with 11,905 speakers. Seven languages are listed with only one speaker. They include Coos and Kalapuya in Oregon, Eyak in Alaska and Coast Miwok, Plains Miwok, Pomo and Serrano in California. In Canada, the Summer Institute of Linguistics' Ethnologue estimates that Cree has 80,550 first language speakers, and in Mexico Náhuatl has 1,376,898 speakers (Gordon, 2005). The various dialects of Quechua, the language of the Incas, still have millions of speakers in Peru, Bolivia, Equador, and other South American countries.
Linguists who study American Indian languages see the many languages of today as having evolved from one or more early languages that began to differ as groups of people repeatedly divided and went their separate ways, populating the Americas. Linguists even try to roughly date when separations occurred by the degree of difference between languages. Because some groups are more ready to borrow words from their neighbors' languages than others, it is difficult to date these hypothesized separations. However, the vast differences that occur even in one language phylum indicate that the people who spoke these languages have lived in the Americas for many thousands of years. English is one language that has borrowed words from hundreds of languages, including many Indian languages, especially the names of animals and plants that were new to Europeans. Some of these words were first loan words into Spanish and French and then were borrowed into English. In addition, many place names in the Americas are of Indian origin.
While most indigenous languages lacked any system of writing before the European invasion, the Aztecs, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Epi-Olmecs, and Mayans had hieroglyphic writing systems. After 1521, the Spanish burned most of the Mayan codices (ancient bark paper books), because they were seen as pagan. During colonial times interested amateurs such as Thomas Jefferson made word lists in different indigenous languages. These lists can be compared to check their similarities, but vocabulary is only one measure of a language's uniqueness. Looking at word order (syntax) is another way to compare the differences and similarities between languages.
Missionaries went even further than compiling lists. They developed writing systems for various indigenous languages and worked with tribal informants to translate Christian texts. John Eliot worked with Indian informants to translate the Bible while others translated catechisms and prayer books. Eliot's Indian Bible in the Massachusetts dialect of the Algonquian language was printed at Harvard University in 1663. Other missionaries produced dictionaries that are still useful today, such as Stephen Riggs' 1852 Grammar and Dictionary of the Dakota Language and the Catholic Franciscan Fathers' 1919 An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navajo Language, printed at their St. Michael's mission. In some cases, the word lists of early amateur scientists and later linguists, as well as the translations and dictionaries produced by missionaries, are all that remains of languages that no one speaks today, and these remnants are being used by descendents to reawaken their ancestral languages.
While most of the missionaries' early writing systems for Indian languages were attempts to phonetically spell Indian words using a European alphabet, in sharp contrast a non-English–speaking Cherokee, Sequoyah, independently developed a unique syllabary of eighty-five symbols representing the sounds in his language. Sequoyah, who moved westward to avoid whites, hoped his writing system would help preserve Cherokee culture. A missionary, Samuel Worcester, printed Sequoyah's syllabary in 1821, and the Cherokees used it in their bilingual newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, started in 1828, and in private correspondence. Unfortunately, the Georgia Guard soon destroyed the Cherokee Phoenix's printing press, and the Cherokees were forcibly removed to Indian Territory on the Trail of Tears. There, between 1835 and 1861, Worcester's new mission printed almost 14 million pages, many in Sequoyah's syllabary. John B. Jones, the Indian agent at Tahlequah in Indian Territory, wrote in 1872 that, "Almost the whole of those Cherokees who do not speak English can read and write the Cherokee by using the characters invented by Sequoyah" (Reyhner and Eder, 2004, 54).
John Wesley Powell, the explorer of the Grand Canyon, published in 1877 An Introduction to the Study of Indian Languages and in 1879 became the first director of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology. In 1891 he published Indian Linguistic Families of America North of Mexico, listing fifty-eight separate language families, which became a foundation for future research by anthropologists and linguists such as Franz Boas, Roland Dixon, Alfred Kroeber, Edward Sapir, J. P. Harrington, Robert Young, Kenneth Hale, Akira Yamamoto, and Leanne Hinton. Sapir was able to reduce the number of major language groups down to six. These linguists used Native speakers as informants.
Linguists have moved from merely studying Indian languages to helping keep remaining languages alive by developing writing systems (orthographies), helping schools develop bilingual education programs, training tribal linguists, and improving language teaching techniques. For example, University of California linguist Leanne Hinton (Hinton, 1994; Hinton and Hale, 2001; Hinton, Vera, and Steele, 2002) is helping to develop the master-apprentice training program to help young adults to learn languages spoken only by a few elderly tribal members, a situation all too common in California.
While linguists tend to see languages as evolving, as English has evolved from the time of Chaucer, to the time of Shakespeare, to today with pronunciations changing and new words being added over time, traditionally American Indians have viewed their languages as sacred gifts from the Creator. For example, the Northern Arapaho Language and Culture Commission has stated that its language is the foundation of Arapaho culture and spiritual heritage. Without it, the Arapahos believe that they would not exist in the manner that the Creator intends.
The connection between language and culture and how and if language shapes the way people understand the world they live in has received much discussion. Many see language as embodying culture. This point of view was expressed by a Cheyenne elder who said, "Cheyennes who are coming toward us are being denied by us the right to acquire that central aspect of what it means to be Cheyenne because we are not teaching them to talk Cheyenne. When they reach us, when they are born, they are going to be relegated to being mere husks, empty shells. They are going to look Cheyenne, have Cheyenne parents but they won't have the language which is going to make them truly Cheyenne" (Reyhner, 1997, vii).
Some linguists have argued that languages determine how we think about and see the world. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues for this determination, while other researchers see languages as having only an influence. One can do a good job of translating from one language to another, although sometimes it takes a whole phrase in one language to get at the meaning of a single word in another language. Some words are very hard to translate. Sally Midgette (1997, 40) gives the example of "the Navajo word hózhó, which lies at the heart of their worldview. This word can only be translated by three separate English words: peace, harmony, and beauty. Some languages do not use verbs to mark past, present, and future as English does, but that does not mean, as some have contended, that speakers of these languages cannot express those concepts.
Using another example of how languages can differ, Midgette (1997, 33) describes how Navajo and other Athapascan languages use different verbs to express whether an action is instantaneous, repeated, or takes a long time. Navajo is a polysynthetic language unlike English, which is an analytic language. In an analytic language, sentences are made up of relatively short and simple words while a polysynthetic language uses very complex words, with roots, prefixes, and suffixes occurring in a fixed order. One complex polysynthetic word can express the meaning of a whole sentence in English. An example Midgette gives is the Navajo word Naa'ahélgo' that translates into the English as "I pushed them and made them fall over one after another." These words are always verbs with the noun incorporated into the verb, such as "we are going berry-picking" (verb) instead of "we are going to pick berries" (verb plus noun).
While linguists who study Indian languages quickly see how sophisticated they are. Yet the popular view of Indian languages by many non-Indian Americans in the nineteenth century was that they were "barbarous" primitive dialects incapable of expressing complex ideas. The U.S. government's Peace Commission reported in 1868 that "between Indian and white it was, the difference in language, which in a great measure barred intercourse and a proper understanding each of the other's motives and intentions. Now, by educating the children of these tribes in the English language these differences would have disappeared, and civilization would have followed at once. . . . Through sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment, and thought; customs and habits are moulded and assimilated in the same way, and thus in process of time the differences producing trouble would have been gradually obliterated" (Reyhner and Eder, 2004, 74).
This attitude toward the role of language ignored the fact that, in the bloody Civil War that ended only three years before, both the North and the South had spoken English.
Commissioner of Indian Affairs J.D.C. Atkins in his 1887 annual report ordered only English to be used in schools on Indian reservations:
Every nation is jealous of its own language, and no nation ought to be more so than ours, which approaches nearer than any other nationality to the perfect protection of its people. True Americans all feel that the Constitution, laws, and institutions of the United States, in their adaptation to the wants and requirements of man, are superior to those of any other country; and they should understand that by the spread of the English language will these laws and institutions be more firmly established and widely disseminated. Nothing so surely and perfectly stamps upon an individual a national characteristic as language (Reyhner and Eder, 2004, 76).
Some missionaries who effectively used bilingual education to first teach reading and writing in their students' Native language before teaching English vigorously opposed Atkins' approach. For example, Stephen Riggs found teaching English "to be very difficult and not producing much apparent fruit." It was not the students' lack of ability that prevented them from learning English, but rather their unwillingness. "Teaching Dakota was a different thing. It was their own language." Riggs's son at Santee Sioux School in Nebraska found that learning to read in their Dakota language and then using illustrated bilingual books "enables them [the children] to master English with more ease when they take up that study; and he thinks, also, that a child beginning a four years' course with the study of Dakota would be further advanced in English at the end of the term than one who had not been instructed in Dakota" (Reyhner and Eder, 2004, 79). Dartmouth College's president wrote in 1887, "The idea of reaching and permanently elevating the great mass of any people whatever, by first teaching them all a foreign tongue, is too absurd ever to have been entertained by sane men" (Reyhner and Eder, 2004, 77).
Various methods were used in schools to keep students from "talking Indian," including washing student's mouths out with lye soap if they spoke their Native languages. When these students became parents, they sometimes did not teach their children their language so that they would not be punished in school like their parents. Over time, some languages ceased to be spoken. It was thought that once American Indians spoke only English, they would do well in school, but in the many Indian communities in the twenty-first century where children no longer know how to speak their ancestral language, the academic achievement gap between Indian and middle-class white students is still wide. Recent research (Reyhner, 2001) has shown that students who still speak their Native language and practice traditional activities do as well or better in school as those who do not. This fact, along with the breakdown of families and the increase in gang and other antisocial activities in Indian communities, led to a movement in the late twentieth century to teach Indian languages in locally controlled schools.
American Indian languages are not the only ones that have been suppressed in U.S. schools. Spanish-speaking students were prevented from and punished for speaking Spanish in schools for more than a century in the Southwestern United States, and as a group they had poor academic achievement. In 1968, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty, President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had taught Mexican-American students in Texas as a young man, signed the Bilingual Education Act. American Indians quickly took advantage of this new source of funding to establish bilingual education programs of their own. However, there was a lack of trained teachers who were fluent in Indian language, and students often ended up learning only a few words in their Native languages.
Ironically, as direct efforts to suppress American Indian language through schooling decreased with the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, language loss actually accelerated among many Native peoples, as paved roads reduced isolation and English-language radio and then television entered Indian homes in North America. The recognition of the accelerating rate of language loss led some tribes to pass language policies. The Navajo Tribal Council passed educational policies in 1984 supporting local control, parental involvement, Indian hiring preference, and Navajo language instruction. It declared:
The Navajo language is an essential element of the life, culture and identity of the Navajo people. The Navajo Nation recognizes the importance of preserving and perpetuating that language to the survival of the Nation. Instruction in the Navajo language shall be made available for all grade levels in all schools serving the Navajo Nation. Navajo language instruction shall include to the greatest extent practicable: thinking, speaking, comprehension, reading and writing skills and study of the formal grammar of the language (Reyhner and Eder, 2004, 310).
These policies also required Navajo history and culture courses. In his preface to the policies, Tribal Chairman Peterson Zah wrote, "We believe that an excellent education can produce achievement in the basic academic skills and skills required by modern technology and still educate young Navajo citizens in their language, history, government and culture" (Reyhner and Eder, 2004, 310). The Northern Ute Tribal Business Committee passed a similar resolution the same year declaring that Ute is the official language of the Northern Ute Nation and may be used in the business of government—legislative, executive and judicial—although in deference to, and out of respect to speakers of English, it may be utilized in official matters of government. "We declare that the Ute language is a living and vital language that has the ability to match any other in the world for expressiveness and beauty. Our language is capable of lexical expansion into modern conceptual fields such as the field of politics, economics, mathematics and science," the statement said (Reyhner and Eder, 2004, 310–311).
Fears of a proposed constitutional amendment to make English the official language of the United States and a desire for language revitalization, especially by Native Hawaiians, led to the passage in the United States of the Native American Languages Act in 1990. This act declared that, "the status of the cultures and languages of Native Americans is unique and the United States has the responsibility to act together with Native Americans to ensure the survival of these unique cultures and languages." The Act made it U.S. policy to "preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages . . .. The right of Indian tribes and other Native American governing bodies to use the Native American languages as a medium of instruction in all schools funded by the Secretary of the Interior" is recognized. In addition, "the right of Native Americans to express themselves through the use of Native American languages shall not be restricted in any public proceeding, including publicly supported education programs" (Reyhner and Eder, 2004, 309).
Multilingualism is more common than monolingualism outside the United States, and researchers (Baker, 2002) have found that knowing more than one language is an asset rather than a handicap. One does not have to cease speaking their mother tongue to learn a second language or one of the "global" or "international" languages spoken widely around the world. Researchers (Baker, 2002) indicate that an average of one to two years is required to acquire speaking ability in a second language, compared to about six years to master reading it (and writing in a new language and to do well academically in it). Unfortunately, voters in the United States have been seduced with "English for the children" propaganda, starting in 1998 in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts. These initiatives largely ban the use of bilingual education in public schools. While aimed at speakers of Spanish, this legislation is affecting negatively indigenous language programs in public schools.
During the last quarter of the twentieth century many indigenous peoples became more aware of the dire straits their languages had encountered. The Maori in New Zealand realized that, if nothing was done soon, no one would be speaking their language in a few years. In addition, their English-speaking children were not doing well in school. In 1982, they started Maori language preschools, called Te Kohanga Reo (language nests), staffed by elders who spoke only Maori with the young children in their care. The number of these preschools increased rapidly. By 1991, 700 had been started, with 10,000 students. The Maori originally came from Hawai'i, and the Hawaiian language was in the same imperiled condition as Maori. Native Hawaiians quickly saw the success of the Maori and started their own language nests, called Punana Leo, in 1984. Their mission statement reads:
The Punana Leo Movement grew out of a dream that there be reestablished throughout Hawai'i the mana of a living Hawaiian language from the depth of our origins. The Punana Leo initiates, provides for and nurtures various Hawaiian Language environments, and we find our strength in our spirituality, love of our language, love of our people, love of our land, and love of knowledge (Reyhner, 2003, 3).
According to parents and staff, the Punana Leo embody "a way of life . . . you have to take it home" that is bringing back the moral values of the culture and mending families. Parents were asked to learn Hawaiian along with their children and provide volunteer help to the preschools, and in 1986 they were able to get the 1896 state law outlawing the use of their language in schools repealed so that their children graduating from the language nests could continue their Hawaiian language education in the public schools. In 2003, there were twenty-three public schools with Hawaiian-immersion classes, and the first immersion students graduated from high school in 1999. Both in New Zealand and Hawai'i students can also now take university-level teacher education courses in their indigenous language, and they are working to Hawaianizing the curriculum they teach rather than just translating it from English. Immersion programs like the one in Hawai'i are still in their infancy in the continental United States.
Throughout most of history in the United States, Indian education has been English-only and assimilationist. However, after World War II, many Native peoples experienced the Civil Rights Movement, demanding more self-determination, including the right to run their own schools. One of the first Indian-controlled schools was Rock Point Community School on the Navajo Nation. Rock Point tried to raise test scores through using English as a second language (ESL) teaching techniques in the early 1960s, with only limited success. They then tried bilingual education starting with two-thirds of a day of Navajo immersion kindergarten in 1967, then adding one grade a year until they had a K–12 bilingual program. Students were immersed in Navajo one-half of the school day in grades one through three and then about one-fourth of the day through high school. While not reaching national averages, the bilingual program raised students' English-language test scores substantially. Children at this time were still coming to school as Navajo speakers in this isolated community and, with the bilingual program, math was taught emphasizing understanding with manipulatives and science was taught as a hands-on process. In high school the students were taught applied Navajo literacy and social studies (Reyhner and Eder, 2004).
As more and more students came to school with Navajo as their first language, the Rock Point model of Native-language maintenance and English-language development needed to be changed to a language-revitalization model. In 2005, the Window Rock School District's Diné (Navajo) immersion program exemplified this new type of program. Located at the capitol of the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Window Rock's immersion program provides for the unique cultural and academic related needs of Navajo children by bringing back traditional Diné cultural values.
Parents must choose to put their children into the Tséhootsooí Diné Bi'ólta' (Diné Language Immersion School) where in kindergarten and first grade the language of instruction is Navajo. Starting in second grade, English instruction is added until in sixth grade, half of the instruction is in English. The Navajo Nation's Diné Cultural Content Standards are used along with Arizona state academic standards for reading, writing, math, foreign language, science, and social studies as the framework for instruction, resulting in students who are speakers and thinkers in Diné while meeting Arizona's academic and English language expectations. The district's goal is to revitalize the Diné (Navajo) language among school-age children through a culturally and linguistically relevant educational program. The school enrolls some 200 students taught by fifteen teachers instructing only in Diné and three English language teachers. The Navajo's tribal college offers teacher education courses taught in Navajo.
The district's vision is to be "an exemplary student centered learning organization reflecting the Diné values of life-long learning." Test data show that Diné language immersion students outperform in most subject areas Navajo students who are getting their instruction in English. Contrary to what many people commonly believe, bilingual education research (Francis and Reyhner, 2002) has found that learning to speak, read, and write a Native language can help students increase their English language skills. In addition, the use of the Diné language and integrating the Diné culture validate students' identity. Window Rock's immersion students are gaining Diné language proficiency at a time when fewer and fewer Diné children are speaking Navajo, and they are staying in school to graduate at a higher rate than other Navajo students.
Window Rock's efforts are supported by various studies (Reyhner, 2001 ) showing that students who speak their tribal language and participate in traditional activities do as well as in school or better than students who have lost their tribal language. Today, language revitalization programs working to keep Native languages alive are part of a larger process seeking to heal the wounds of colonial oppression that often sought to stamp out all aspects of Native culture. Sally Midgette writes, "I have heard several Native Americans speak about their sense of rootlessness and despair, and how they recovered when their grandmothers taught them to speak Tolowa, or Navajo, and they regained a sense of themselves and their heritage" (1997, 39). Evangeline Parsons Yazzie found in her doctoral research that, "Elder Navajos want to pass on their knowledge and wisdom to the younger generation. Originally, this was the older people's responsibility. Today the younger generation does not know the language and is unable to accept the words of wisdom." She concluded, "The use of the native tongue is like therapy, specific native words express love and caring. Knowing the language presents one with a strong self-identity, a culture with which to identify, and a sense of wellness" (Reyhner 1997, vi ). Richard Littlebear, president of Chief Dull Knife College, concluded that his Northern Cheyenne language can be an antidote to the forces pulling the youth of his tribe into joining gangs.