Native American Languages Today
An Unbearable Loss
An important reason why there continues to be an effort to preserve the dying Native American languages is that Native Americans or American Indians had a particularly strong sense of identity. Their clothes were special, their languages irreplaceable. Besides, their tribal dances such as Kachina; traditional spirituality; stone weapons; strings or belts known as wampums; sand painting; and the custom of hunting the bison were all parts of their roots imbedded deep into their consciousness (Nichols). When the Europeans came to dislodge these roots by occupying the land that the Indians had believed to be theirs alone, the lives of the latter changed dramatically. This was a time of cultural demise for the Indians, in fact. To drown out the pain of humiliation felt due to their roots being pulled out – the Indians found relief in alcohol. Thus, Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, writes in his novel, The Lone Ranger and Tonto fistfight in Heaven: “’Go ahead,’ Adrian said. ‘Pull the trigger.’ I held a pistol to my temple. I was sober but wished I was drunk enough to pull the trigger.”
The destruction of their societal structure feels terrible. And so, alcoholism becomes a means of drowning out the humiliation felt by the Indians in Alexie’s novel. By attempting to drown out the pain of cultural demise, the Indians are also making an attempt at self-renewal. They have been forced to move to the West by the armed Europeans. The new government wants to assimilate them, and destroy the Native American society in the process, seeing that the government is afraid of being overthrown by the natives. Alexie uses Victor’s father as a metaphor for the Native American culture. He writes: “… your father will rise like a salmon, leap over the bridge… He will rise, he will rise.” The continuation of the American Indian culture is similar to the revolving life cycle. The author asserts that the Native American culture could keep on going like ashes flowing along the river. The culture may also rise one day like salmon rise in the river all of a sudden. The Native American culture could pass from generation to generation continuously. However, many of the Indians have no faith in the restoration of their culture. Countless Native American people are, therefore, hopelessly drinking their lives away because they feel no motivation to live a better life.
The Native Americans do not see a way to improve their lives despite the faint hope of cultural restoration. Alcohol to them is a painkiller. As the Indians have lost faith in recovering the Native American culture, Alexie also shows that there is no way for the Indians to get back their tradition and culture, including the freedom they felt with respect to their languages. He writes: “With each glass of beer, Samuel gained a few ounces of wisdom, courage. But after a while, he began to understand too much about fear and failure, too.” At first, the Indians believe that alcohol may help them escape from the reality and relieve the pain of losing their rich culture. But then, they realize that the loss of their culture makes them afraid and worried. They feel sad as a new culture takes over their spiritual traditions and dear customs, seeing that they have already failed in preventing their culture from being taken over by a new culture. Hence, Samuel neither forgets his tribe’s culture nor accepts the new customs. Though his tribe’s culture is being exterminated, he has no way to stop this from happening. All his life he has watched his brothers and sisters, and most of his tribe folks, fall into alcoholism and surrendered dreams. So, now, Samuel, the one who never drank, also wants some drink to relieve his pain of roots being pulled out. Moreover, he picks up the pieces of a story from the street and changes the world for a few moments in his mind to show how he truly can escape the world.
The Indians have turned pessimistic. “It is a good day to die” becomes a slogan song for Victor. His nightmare is a life consumed by whiskey, vodka, and tequila, for he has turned out to be alcoholic like his father. He has lost his dream. What is more, alcoholism becomes a racial signature for him, just as the whites have believed that he could very well be a criminal because his race is different from theirs. Although Victor does not commit any crimes, people stereotype him as a troublemaker just because he is an Indian and has an Indian appearance: “dark skin and long, black hair”. When Victor gets lost in the street, the police ask him to drive carefully, since he will make people “nervous” and he does not fit the “profile of the neighborhood”. This adds insult to the injury on Victor’s being, as well as the wound on every other Indian’s. Feeling utterly helpless and powerless, the entire community could use alcohol as an escape. What has happened to them may be likened to the death of a whole society. Although many Native Americans are still alive, drastic changes to their lives have rendered them virtually paralyzed. Hence, many people assume that it is only alcohol that can understand them. Perhaps they would find a way out of themselves while drinking. Even though it does not work, the American Indians could try day after day to make it work. Perhaps it will work one day anyhow.
The Native Americans had formed a society for themselves before foreigners invaded this society and turned everything upside down. The foreigners spoke their own language. And, the Indians who did not know the foreign language had no way of progressing in the new society, even if the likes of Victor and Samuel were to gather the courage to dream of developing in the new society. The American Indians were not organized enough to make a minority of the foreigners. Neither could they suggest that all new developments brought about by the foreigners must use the Native American languages as their foundation. And so, Victor had closed his eyes and meditated: “Nothing works. Nothings works”(Alexie).
While Alexie’s book is fictitious, it is true to life. The roots of the American Indians had been dislodged. Their languages, of course, were some of the strongest parts of their roots. All the same, the American Indians are not alone in their loss. Other societies and languages have been destroyed to boot.
There are six thousand languages spoken on the planet right now. Three thousand of these — half of the world’s known languages — are expected to die within one hundred years’ worth of time. Of the estimated remaining languages, 40 percent are threatened, which is to say that the cultures built by these languages are threatened as well. The society is built with culture, and hence, the societies using these endangered languages are threatened along with their languages.
Back to our statistics – within only one hundred years, 90 percent of the world’s existing languages might be extinct or seriously threatened. “That leaves only about 600 languages, 10 percent of the world’s total, that remain relatively secure — for now,” wrote linguist James Crawford.
Of the hundreds of Native American languages, only one hundred and seventy five are spoken today. Some of these languages have only a single living speaker. It has been predicted by Santa Fe’s Indigenous Language Institute that only twenty of these languages will survive the next six decades. Most of these languages are moribund – spoken only by elders and not learned by children (Kent). Of the twenty three Native languages still spoken by Oklahoma tribes, only two are actively being passed on to the next generation. Of the twenty Alaskan languages, only two dialects of Yup’ik are being passed on (Crawford).
Before white contact, California had more linguistic variety than all of Europe. This was indeed an example of the richness in the societal structure missed by the Native Americans who drank to forget their linguistic and cultural wealth. At present, every one of the fifty surviving
native languages in California is moribund. California’s Indian languages are indeed in the ultimate crisis in a life-and-death struggle. Most of these languages, or perhaps all of them, may disappear in our lifetimes. “The threat to linguistic resources is now recognized as a worldwide crisis,” Crawford wrote. We appear to have entered a period of mass extinctions — a threat to diversity in not only our natural ecology, but also in what might be called our cultural ecology.
The cause of extinction of a language has to be a drastic change in the society that used the language in the past. The Native American languages had to face extinction because the society as they knew it had been changed dramatically. Societies have faced both evolution and extinction in world history. Although the loss of a language along with the culture that supported it, is a cause of serious distress for those facing the loss; it is reasonable to believe that our world cannot accommodate old societies, cultures, and languages for ever. Civilizations come and go, and the people who live through the loss of a civilization may simply mourn. As a matter of fact, evolution and extinction are certain laws that our world cannot do without.
Some languages have died because every speaker was wiped off the face of the Earth. Others have died because of cultural genocide, an example of which was practiced by the American government and the Roman Catholic Church in the boarding school programs for Native American children in the nineteenth century (Soldier).
More often than not, languages die because of language shift, that is, another language such as Spanish or English eclipses the use of the native languages. Today mass media reaches the furthest corners of the globe and brings with itself new languages via television, radio, and the Internet (Reyhner). “Destruction of lands and livelihoods; the spread of consumerism, individualism, and other Western values; pressures for assimilation into dominant cultures; and conscious policies of repression directed at indigenous groups — these are among the factors threatening the world’s biodiversity as well as its cultural and linguistic diversity,” wrote Crawford.
The tragic loss of human culture and learning is not inevitable. Despite all odds, indigenous peoples and linguists are fighting to keep native languages alive (Ivanova). “Heroic efforts are now being made on behalf of languages with only a few elderly speakers, for example, by the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival,” wrote Crawford.
One woman in California is the last speaker of her language. Every time she talks, she speaks first in English, then in her native language to stay in practice. According to her belief, which is the same as the beliefs of the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival – native languages are worthy of survival. Therefore, some people are making all the effort they can to help them live on. As an example, the Arizona Attorney General pointed out that ‘English Only’ does not apply to tribal and federal schools (Tohtsoni).
The Enemy of Survival
The English Only movement is a threat and annoyance that language preservationists face. This movement gained widespread support in the 1980s, riding a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, directed primarily at Spanish-speaking Latin Americans. The English Only Foundation is the largest group in this movement, and they see establishing English as the official language of the United States as a means of unifying the country. The group seeks legislation requiring federal and state governments to only conduct business in English, not to translate government documents into other languages, and for no government money to be spent on other languages with the exceptions of short-term bilingual education for immigrant children and the teaching of second languages in public schools. Publicly the movement says that it seeks unity; privately, however, the motivation of the group appears to be racist and assimilationist (Reyhner).
In the United States, the economic impetus to learn English is overwhelming, without being legislated. In the zeal to teach English to immigrants, many English Only supporters did not only forget about the existence of native languages, but they also failed to remember the needs of deaf people who communicate via American Sign Language (Reyhner). English was all important. The minorities could go to Hell, so to speak.
Why Conserve the Languages?
Many civilizations have come and gone, and yet nobody asks about their languages. Similarly, societies have been established and destroyed. Those who are interested in language preservation only talk about languages whose representatives are still alive, such as the Native Americans. Moreover, languages with a writing culture are very important in understanding the history of human lives.
Contrary to the English Only position, studies confirm that developing fluent bilingualism and cultivating academic excellence are complementary, rather than contradictory, goals. As an example, consider that Canada has a bilingual education system that guarantees minority’s right not to assimilate, but the right to maintain a certain difference. The richness implied by diversity is the richness of society. And, language happens to be the signature of diversity.
People might oppose expending resources or energy to save languages because they do not believe it is possible. Some see language death as part of an inevitable. Yet, one outstanding example of what is possible with language resuscitation is that of Hebrew. Hebrew was a “dead” language for almost two millennia, but was brought back to use by the modern state of Israel and is now spoken by millions. While Native Americans do not have the extensive resources that Israel has, they do have awe-inspiring tenacity and faith (Crawford). This is the reason why Alexie’s natives kept on wishing for self-renewal, even as they became alcoholics. After all, they did not kill themselves entirely at the time of change. Rather, they tried to help themselves as best as they could. With their understanding and extent of knowledge, perhaps alcohol was the only way they found to help themselves in the short term.
Certain friends of Victor and Samuel today, the Deg Hit’an (Ingalik Athabaskan) have less than twenty elders, who live too far away from the young adults trying to learn Deg Xinag – their very own language — for face-to-face contact. So the tribe has created a distance delivery class to teach their language via telephone, thanks to the development brought on by the whites! Apart from the Deg Hit’an, the Coquille Tribe in Oregon is working to revive their Miluk language, which has no living speakers. Their only tools are tape recordings of the last living speakers from the 1930s. Another example of Indians struggling to keep their languages alive is that of the K’iche’. To save the sound of the Nawal, the K’iche’ are willing to die, and many have been shot, dismembered, burned, buried, or thrown into volcanoes in Guatemala.
Although we cannot hope to deliver all languages from extinction – that is, all languages that have been spoken on earth since the day man appeared on the planet – the loss of linguistic diversity represents a loss of intellectual diversity, and most immediately a loss to the discipline of linguistics. The study of linguistics helps scholars understand origins, migrations and cultural contacts of tribes long before written historical records were made. “Language is the vessel to a culture,” wrote Jim Kent. And each language is a unique tool for understanding the world. Languages incorporate the knowledge and values of a speech community, which can show us the depth and diversity of human nature (Kent).
Linguists claim that native languages are extraordinarily different from European languages; for instance, some have different dialects spoken by men and women, a well-known example being Yana from California. Certain languages, such a Bella Coola, have words without any vowels. Musical pitch may also play a role in the meaning of a word. Very much unlike English, many Native American languages are polysynthetic, which means a word is a combination of many elements with many specific meanings. While today in English we try to avoid being sexist and stumble over awkward phrases such as “he or she should look out himself or herself,” Cherokee pronouns are not gender specific at all.
There is much to learn from all different languages, and about the amazing choices humans have in organizing and talking about the world around them. There are many ways to construct language itself, and many more ways to play with it or to use it to powerful effect.
Language gives many clues to the culture. For instance, in Hasinai there is a completely separate common speech and a ceremonial speech. Both Cherokee and Hasinai have modifiers to distinguish between what is directly observed (and hence, true) and what is gossip. Most native languages have extensive lists of high specific kinship terms, which show a greater emphasis on family than what is found in Anglo cultures.
Action is paramount in Native languages. Nouns are expressed not so much as what something is as by what it does. Finally, each language has its own unique sense of humor. Many West Coast native languages have silly nonsense speech for animals. Other twists of humor include strange puns.
These diverse languages should be preserved in the interest of correcting past injustices, according to those who feel for the Native Americans still living and contemplating their roots. These advocates further believe that native languages are not dying by chance. Rather, linguistic genocide was United States’ policy for decades (Soldier). A federal commission in 1868 wrote, “Schools should be established, which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialects should be blotted out and the English language substituted. (Crawford)” From
that point onward well into the middle 20th century, native children were quite literally kidnapped from their homes and sent to government or church boarding schools. “Under strict English Only rules, students were punished and humiliated for speaking their native language as part of a general campaign to erase every vestige of their Indian-ness,” wrote Crawford. On 14 December 1886, the federal government announced its policy outlawing any use of native languages. This policy continued until the 1950s and can be credited with the destruction of over one hundred and fifty languages.
Language is the key to identity, and those American Indians who were born after the European invasion wish to understand their societal roots seeing that they are not exactly the same as the Europeans that live alongside them. Besides, there is an emphasis on race in the American society today. The young Indian today wants to know, therefore, why he is considered different from the majority of people he meets. Navajo educator Parsons Yazzie said, “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)” What is more, a Northern Cheyenne elder was quoted by Dr. Richard Littlebear: “It’s scary the way we’re losing our Cheyenne language. Cheyenne language is us; it is who we are; we talk it, we live it. We are it and it is us. (Reyhner)”
A Ponca elder asked some children what tribe they belonged to. The children responded, “Ponca.” He asked them if they spoke the Ponca language; they said, “No.” He told them they were not Ponca, and without knowing their language, they may as well be brown-skinned white people. Nevertheless, having a clear sense of identity is important for self-esteem and stability. Dawn Stiles, a Cocopah language instruction, says that successful language programs can help reduce drug and alcohol abuse, gang activity, and high dropouts rates in native communities (Reyhner). “Along with the accompanying loss of culture, language loss can destroy a sense of self-worth, limiting human potential and complicating efforts to solve other problems, such as poverty, family breakdown, school failure, and substance abuse,” wrote Crawford. “After all, language death does not happen in privileged communities. It happens to the dispossessed and the disempowered, peoples who most need their cultural resources to survive. (Crawford)”
The act of creating a language program itself can be healing to a tribe. “The stabilization of indigenous languages forms part of a broader movement to reestablish societies on a human scale that are in balance with nature,” writes Jon Reyhner. Languages are learned better in tandem with cultural knowledge. Dance, folk stories, and singing are employed in language classes. Some tribes, such as the Yup’ik and the Wind River Arapaho, have immersion programs. Tribes such as the Lakota, Navajo, and Zuni have radio stations that broadcast their own languages. The Yamada Language Institute on the web has – available freely to the public – computer fonts for the Cherokee syllabary, Inuit, and Cree. Native Hawai’ian, Dine, and Muskogee Creek speakers are actively modernizing their languages to include technological terms. The Navajo Nation and the Oglala Lakota tribe have both issued mandates that tribal business will take place in the native language.
Linguist Dr. Alice Anderton has created the Intertribal Wordpath Society “to promote the teaching, status, awareness, and use of Oklahoma Indian languages. (Reyhner)” Wordpath hosts an annual native language fair and a weekly television show. And, whereas in the past children learned from their mothers, now language programs have to skip a generation and successful program pair infants with fluent elders. Language classes must meet more than once a week. In these classes, singing is good when speaking will not work. Above all, learning languages should be fun.
Indian tribes are also videotaping and recording their elders. They are creating orthographies, grammar books, dictionaries, novels, immersion camps, artwork, CD-ROMs, comics, newspapers, e-mail list serves, and websites to proliferate instructional material in their languages. Tribes are working with public school systems to teach native languages in the classrooms also.
The efforts made by tribes to save the endangered Native American languages should serve as an alternative relief system for Alexie’s Indian characters who have become alcoholics. Besides, these efforts made by the Indian tribes should be fully supported today by the public at large, seeing that all knowledge benefits the entire nation, and the knowledge of a language is the heritage of the human society in general. Saving native languages is crucial to native peoples, and rightly so. By using their own languages, the Native Americans may still believe that they have a society of their own, no matter how small it is. A sense of community is essential to the well being of peoples. Abraham Maslow had referred to this sense of community as the sense of belongingness that every individual needs in order to reach his fullest potential.
Linguist D. Tunbridge understands the importance of one’s native language. Writing about a project to revive Adnyamathanha, an Australian Aboriginal language, Tunbridge wrote: “It was not the success in reviving the language — although in some small ways [the program] did that. It was success in reviving something far deeper than the language itself — that sense of worth in being Adnyamathanha, and in having something unique and infinitely worth hanging onto. (Crawford)”
It is true that new languages are being born to replace the old ones. But these new languages do not compare to the linguistic heritage that is being lost, especially for those who have belonged to the society that has directly borne the loss. The thousands of languages spoken in the world today have evolved over the entire course of human history. Each group of related languages is separated from every other group by many thousands of years of development. Therefore, if English were to become the sole language of every person on earth, it would take tens of thousands of years to produce anything like the diversity that is our heritage — assuming that we could somehow reproduce the conditions under which this diversity grew. For all practical purposes, the diversity we have now is absolutely irreplaceable.
Countless people believe that it is crucial to save the Native American languages. This is because the Indians, too, are a part of us. They too have helped to shape our world history, and build our world. Besides, many of them continue to remember the injustices that they had to deal with at the time of the white invasion. Their society was destroyed, and now their languages are becoming extinct.
For those who are not Indians, and do not wish to save the native languages because it is emotional not to – the fact remains that human languages are special. They are “us.” They speak to our intelligence. They speak to our conscience, and they inform us about our own nature. And so, we have to remember our heritage; we have to remember where we come from; and we have to remember that we have to remember this because we are all the children of Adam and Eve and therefore, are one.
Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto fistfight in Heaven. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993.
Crawford, J. Endangered Native American Languages: What is to be done, and why? Language and Politics in the U.S. and Canada: Myths and Realities. (ed. Ricento, T. and Burnaby, B.) Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998.
Ivanova, K. Tribal college professors act to save endangered languages. Community College Week (May 2000), v14 i20, pp 22(1).
Kent, J. American Indigenous languages face crisis in the 21st century. News From Indian Country (May 2002), V.XVI; N.9, pp 14A.
Nichols, Roger L. Indians in the United States ; Canada, A Comparative History. University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
Reyhner, J. Cultural Survival vs. Forced Assimilation: the renewed war on diversity. Cultural Survival Quarterly (July 2001), V.25; N.2, pp 22.
Soldier, L. W. Lakota Language: Survival and Restoration; Lessons From the Boarding School. Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education (April 1993), V.IV; N.4, pp 24.
Tohtsoni, N. J. (2001. February). Navajo language `essential’: Arizona attorney general says `English-only’ does not apply to tribes or federal schools. Navajo Times (February 2001), V.XXXX; N.7, pp A1.