Native communities want schools to teach Native languages. Now the White House is voicing support

Between 67 and 100 percent of Indigenous languages in the U.S., Canada and Australia will disappear within three generations, one analysis says

Neal Morton | The Hechinger Report | April 13, 2023

Students at the Arapaho School in Arapahoe, Wyoming, learn using an Arapaho language app. Credit: Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

By the close of this century, at least half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken today will become extinct – and that’s according to the rosiest of linguistic forecasts.

Already, about 2,900 languages, or 41 percent, are endangered. And at current rates, the most dire projections suggest that closer to 90 percent of all languages will become dormant or extinct by 2100.

The global linguistic crisis is most stark in the predominantly English-speaking countries of the United States, Australia and Canada. Between 67 and 100 percent of Indigenous languages in those three countries will disappear within three generations, according to a 2019 analysis of 200 years of global language loss by researcher Gary Simons.

The three countries share more than a common language: For several decades, their governments forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families and relocated them to distant boarding schools. Children there regularly encountered humiliating, and sometimes violent, treatment as a means to suppress their Native American identity.

In the U.S., federal Indian boarding schools renamed children with English names and discouraged or prevented the use of Indigenous languages. “Rules were often enforced through punishment, including corporal punishment such as solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing,” according to the first-ever federal investigative report, released last year, into the traumatic legacy of boarding schools.

To help Native communities heal from that trauma, the report recommends an explicit federal policy of cultural revitalization, one that supports the work of Indigenous peoples and tribes to preserve and strengthen their languages and cultures. Late last year, the White House announced it would put that idea into action, and soon will launch a 10-year plan to revitalize Native languages, under the umbrella of a new initiative to advance educational equity and economic opportunity for Native Americans.

That plan, set for release later this year, will focus on schools – run by the same government that attempted to strip Native children of their identity – as a critical partner to preserve and restore tribal sovereignty for the future. Details of the plan remain scant, but a draft framework calls for the revitalization of Native languages across all “ages, grade levels, and ability levels, in formal and informal places and settings.” The plan will cover early childhood, K-12 and higher education, but also extend to “academic settings throughout adulthood and a person’s entire lifetime.”

“We’re past the stage of education being done to us,” said Jason Cummins, an enrolled member of the Apsaalooke Nation and deputy director of the White House initiative.

Naomi Miguel, citizen of the Tohono O’odham Nation and the initiative’s executive director, added that the pandemic fueled an urgency to develop the language plan. “A lot of tribes lost their last language speakers and elders,” she said.

With nearly 600 federally recognized tribes, no single solution will satisfy every tribal community, the draft framework states. Potential barriers to reversing language loss include striking a balance between honoring Native elders and implementing professional standards for language teachers and creating classroom materials and dictionaries without sacrificing tribal ownership of language; and even public relations.

The plan also must outlast the current presidential administration. But Miguel said she is not worried. “This is the one area left in the federal government, unfortunately, that is very much bipartisan,” she said of Native American issues.

In March, Miguel and Cummins started holding tribal consultation and listening sessions to collect feedback on the framework. They said they found inspiration for ideas they could use in the plan in places like Montana, where high schoolers can earn a seal of biliteracy on their diplomas for proficiency in Indigenous languages. And tribes across the board stressed the importance of connecting young people with Native elders and knowledge keepers.

“When a student can see themselves in their educational environment, when they see their own story … it’s very engaging. It’s very empowering,” said Cummins, who previously ran Crow language programs in schools in Montana.

Meanwhile, some tribal communities have already forged ahead with new school partnerships to reclaim and restore their heritage languages, which could serve as models for the White House effort.

Navajo Technical University, in Crownpoint, New Mexico, will start accepting students this fall for a new doctoral program – the first among tribal colleges and universities – in Diné culture and language sustainability. On the other side of the country, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts, meanwhile, starts much earlier with a language immersion program for preschoolers. And for nearly 40 years, the state of Hawaii has offered K-12 immersion programs in Hawaiian language that now enroll students on six of the eight major Hawaiian islands.

“That’s kind of our vision: preschool to PhD,” said Alex Fire Thunder, deputy director of the Lakota Language Consortium, an educational nonprofit that since 2004 has worked toward a goal of Lakota being spoken in every Lakota household.

He spoke on a recent Thursday, after finding a spot of good cell phone service on his drive from a tribal elder’s home. Fire Thunder spends much of his time in the living rooms of older Lakota speakers, recording long interviews to document the language of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The consortium also uses the recordings for a language podcast and a third edition of the New Lakota Dictionary, which now includes 41,000 words.

“It’s the largest Native American dictionary in the world,” said Wilhelm Meya, executive director of the Language Conservancy, a Bloomington, Indiana-based nonprofit that works to preserve Indigenous languages.

Meya cited the work in South Dakota as one of the best global examples of how to preserve and revitalize an endangered language. Exhibits A and B for Meya: the Lakota Berenstain Bears Project, which captured the popular children’s book and TV show into the first Native American language cartoon series, and the Red Cloud Indian School, a private Catholic school that Fire Thunder once attended.

While the White House hasn’t put a price tag on how much it will spend on the revitalization effort, Meya points out that the federal government spent roughly $2 billion in today’s dollars on its Indian boarding school policy.

For his part, Fire Thunder is already raising his young son entirely in Lakota. “In America, you’re seen as less than, as lower if you don’t know English,” he said. “A lot of our elders adapted that mentality from boarding schools. We have to replace that with a mentality in our young people that the language is theirs. They can reclaim it and put it in the spaces they exist in.”

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