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Achievements Abound for Native American Languages in 2011

A number of advancements were made in Native American languages this year, here are just a sampling of those featured by Indian Country Today Media Network.
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Even though statistics say Native American languages are endangered and the U.S. Census says there are less than half a million speakers of Native languages in the country, there were a number of advancements in language revitalization and preservation throughout the year, a sampling of those are noted here:


Thanks to Shared Vision and the Ojibwe Language Project dual language signage has been popping up all around the community of Bemidji, Minnesota. “We realize that our signage project won’t make everyone a fluent speaker of Ojibwe. That is not the point. What IS happening is a small step to learning more about our Native neighbors. In turn, we hope it’s a small step of letting them know we respect their culture,” said Ojibwe Language Project team member Rachelle Houle.

For the first time a book with no English was chosen as a Best Read for 2011 by the Library of Congress. The book, Awesiinyensag: Dibaajimowinan Ji-gikinoo’amaageng (Wiigwaas Press, 2011), is a young reader Ojibwe—language book. The book was also Minnesota’s official choice to represent all state publications at the National Book Festival held September 24 to 25 in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Donald Warne, Oglala Lakota, is one of three American Indians nominated by the National Indian Health Board and the National Congress of American Indians to serve as U.S. Surgeon General. (Courtesy North Dakota State University)

Dr. Donald Warne, Oglala Lakota, is one of three American Indians nominated by the National Indian Health Board and the National Congress of American Indians to serve as U.S. Surgeon General. (Courtesy North Dakota State University)

In April, ICTMN featured the Joseph K. Lumsden Bahweting Anishnabe Public School Academy (JKL) in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The school, opened in 1994, makes Ojibwe culture and tradition part of everyday life for the 470 students—more than half of whom are members of Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. “Our school is here to help a group of students who have a strong cultural background express and enjoy themselves—and not feel they have anything to hide, said School Superintendent Su Palmer. “It is not just the students; it is also the adults we are educating. Our teachers are building a culture in our kids, Native or non-Native.”

The 5th annual Ojibwe Language Quiz Bowl was held April 16 at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. About 150 students making up nine teams mostly from Minnesota and Wisconsin had their Ojibwe language skills put the test. The language bowl is one of the tools used to engage students who rarely get to speak Ojibwe outside the classroom.


The Lakota Language Consortium (LLC) made a huge advancement in its effort to preserve the Lakota language with the completion of 20 episodes of the popular cartoon The Berenstain Bears or Mat?ó Waú?šila Thiwáhe—The Compassionate Bear Family—which made its debut September 11 through South Dakota Public Broadcasting and Prairie Public Television. At you can find transcripts, vocabulary sheets and comprehension questions that can be used by those learning or teaching Lakota. A DVD of the 20 episodes is also available.

LLC also held its fifth Lakota Summer Institute from June 6 to 24, which was considered a success by organizers. “These three weeks always deliver a transformative amount of information,” said Lakota Language Consortium (LLC) Executive Director Will Meya in a press release. “Some participants have said this experience is like going through West Point, training for a language revitalization battle. Our intent is always to create positive attitude and hope in our teachers.”


After years of documentation by Squamish speakers working with anthropologists and linguists, the Squamish language got its own dictionary.Skwxwu7mesh Snichim-Xweliten Snichim Skexwts/Squamish-English Dictionary, published by University of Washington Press, not only offers a view of modern daily life but also contains the historical record, protocols and laws of Squamish people that are essential for nation building and retaining their culture. The book is being distributed worldwide.


Anne Makepeace’s documentary, We Still Live Here (Âs Nutayuneân), details the Wampanoag people’s struggle to revive their language when not a single native speaker remained. Jesse Little Doe Baird, the Mashepee Wampanoag co-director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, is featured in the film. Makepeace’s film shows some of the original documents written in Wampanoag that Baird used to create her dictionary, grammar, and school lessons: deeds, letters, petitions, even notes in the margins of family bibles. Baird’s dedication is captured in the documentary; you may find yourself whispering your own first new phrases.


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In March, the Cherokee syllabary became available as an interface language on Google, so anyone who can read and write Cherokee can search the web in their chosen language.

The Cherokee Nation, the University of Kansas (KU) and the University of Oklahoma have partnered in the latest effort to revitalize the Cherokee language, the Documenting Cherokee Tone Project. This will add a spoken element to the 10,000 entries in the Cherokee Electronic Dictionary. Those working on the project have received just under $200,000 in grants from the Documenting Endangered Languages program.

The Cherokee Nation has joined the Unicode Consortium, which sets international software standards, and makes the Cherokee language available on all computer systems. This alignment is expected to help the Cherokee language grow exponentially.


As a way to teach Native youth the Mohawk language, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe embraced state-of-the-art methods to teach language including Rosetta Stone language software programs and a game cartridge for the Nintendo DSi.

The Mohawk community of Kanatsiohareke, in central New York State, continued its work to revitalize Kanienkeha, the Mohawk language. The community has offered language immersion classes for 14 years.


Canada’s first Inuktitut app launched in 2011. It is being used by the Canada Council for the Arts to give out information on how to apply for grants. The app is for iPads, iPhones, the iPod touch and Androids and is in the language of the Inuit. The goal is to attract musicians, artists and writers of the far north to the programs.


The state of Oklahoma is getting its own section here because it was listed in National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project as a language hotspot, so let’s see what language activities happened around the state this year.

A story published May 17 by ICTMN notes how language preservationists in Oklahoma are scrambling to revitalize endangered Native American languages including Cherokee, Osage, Euchee and Sauk.

Where can you go to hear 32 Native American languages spoken by more than 600 students? The Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair at the Sam Noble Museum, that’s where. The event started nine years ago to provide support to tribes struggling to preserve their languages. This year, more than 70 schools from Oklahoma, Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico participated in the event.

Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby, center, is joined by tribal leaders and staff in a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Chickasaw Nation Chikasha House. (Mike McKee)

Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby, center, is joined by tribal leaders and staff in a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Chickasaw Nation Chikasha House. (Mike McKee)

The Oklahoma Breath of Life — Silent No More program, which puts on a workshop designed to give participants the tools to help revitalize endangered Native languages, received a $90,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to hold another workshop in 2012.

To see all the stories ICTMN covered this year regarding Native American languages, visit the Language section.