7 Most Popular Native American Languages in U.S.
Tanya H. Lee
Who identify themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native alone (and who are over 5 years of age), over 70 percent say they speak only English at home. A Native North American language is spoken in the homes of nearly 15 percent. Roughly two-thirds of homes where a Native language is spoken are located in New Mexico, Arizona and Alaska, so it is not surprising that the most commonly spoken Native language is Navajo.
Navajo is far and away the most commonly spoken Native language in the U.S. with nearly 170,000 speakers, or almost 10 times as many speakers as each of the two languages with the next highest numbers: Yupik and Sioux. Navajo, closely related to Apache, is in the Athabaskan language family, which includes 44 languages spoken in the U.S. and Canada.
The Navajo Nation has started several bilingual language immersion schools for youngsters, two radio stations on the reservation broadcast in Navajo and English and the Navajo vocabulary has been expanded to accommodate modern technological terms. Diné College, Navajo Technical University, the Institute of American Indian Arts, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, the Arizona and New Mexico state universities and several community colleges teach the Navajo language. The Superbowl was broadcast in Navajo in 1996 and in 2013 the movie Star Wars was translated into Navajo.
Central Alaskan Yupik has the largest number of speakers of any Alaska Native language; almost half of the Yupik population are speakers. Children grow up speaking Yupik as their first language in 17 of 68 Yupik villages, according to the Native American Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The total Siberian Yupik population in Alaska is much smaller, about 1,100 people, but virtually all of them speak the language. Children in Gambell and Savoonga learn Siberian Yupik as their first language.
Sioux includes three dialects spoken in North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska. According to the UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, the Yankton-Yanktonai dialect is primarily spoken on the Yankton and Crow Creek Reservations and on the northern part of the Standing Rock Reservation. Teton (Lakota) is spoken on the Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Sisseton Reservations and the southern part of Standing Rock. Off-reservation speakers live in Rapid City, Minneaoplis, and other upper Midwest cities. Sioux is also spoken in several Canadian provinces.
Apache, Rio Grande Keresan, Cherokee and Choctaw are each spoken by between 10,000 and 15,000 people. UNESCO lists five groups of Apache speakers: Jicarilla Apache, Kiowa Apache, Mescalero-Chiricahua Apache (New Mexico) Mescalero-Chiricahua Apache (Oklahoma) and Western Apache, with the last group accounting for half the speakers. Western Apache is spoken on the San Carlos Apache, Ft. Apache, Tonto, Ft. McDowell and Camp Verde Reservations.
Rio Grand Keresan
This is the language of seven of the New Mexico Rio Grande pueblos: Acoma, Laguna, Santa Ana, Zia, Kewa, Cochiti and San Felipe. The pueblo peoples of the Southwest have rich language diversity. The Hopi language is Uto-Aztecan, Zuni is a language isolate related to the Penutian languages, the Tanoan languages include Towa (spoken at Jemez), Tewa (spoken at Ohkay Owingeh, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Tesuque, Nambe, Pojoaque, and Hano [a Hopi village]), and there are three Tiwa languages, Taos, Picuris, and Southern Tiwa (spoken at Sandia and Isleta).
Cherokee is a member of the Iroquoian language family. In 1821, Sequoyah invented a Cherokee syllabary (a writing system where symbols represent syllables), using letters of the Roman alphabet from English, modified Roman letters and invented symbols. The Cherokee people have gone to great lengths to preserve not only their spoken language but also the written language and many resources are available online.
Choctaw is spoken in Louisiana by two state-recognized tribes: the Clifton Choctaws and the Jena Band. The Mississippi Band of Choctaws has about 5,000 fluent speakers and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has 4,000-plus, according to UNESCO.