In Sapulpa, Okla., teachers spend mornings studying with the remaining speakers of the Yuchi language. In the afternoon, they teach 35 Yuchi preschool students what the elders have just – breath-to-breath – taught them.
“Our youngest speaker is 80 years old,” said Richard Grounds, director of the Yuchi Language Program. “We don’t expect them to come in and wrestle down these wonderful, little two years olds.”
On the Wind River Reservation, language classes in local public schools were canceled so Northern Arapaho resources, financial and human, could be focused at the Hinono’ Eitiino’ Oowu’, an immersion school, where 22 children have the chance to become fluent speakers.
These are desperate measures undertaken in desperate times for Native languages. The Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., has documented the loss of more than 20 Native languages since 1997, and tracked the aging of fluent language speakers. In 1997, most languages were spoken by people middle-aged and older. Now more than half of Native language speakers are older than 70. Only 20 languages are now routinely spoken to children.
Ryan Wilson, a National Indian Education Association board member, has said we are in the 59th minute of the hour for Native languages in the United States.
Although the loss of language in the space of one, two or three generations is a common story among immigrant groups, it is a story that most of us can recite from our Native family experience of boarding school and other periods of loss. We in Native America live in a remarkable state of denial, he said; because if we weren’t in denial, we would be doing everything in our power to save our languages.
“A lot of us missed the boat on how critical language survival is to our own survival,” said Wilson, who was contracted by the Northern Arapaho to get the Hinono’ Eitiino’ Oowu’ (Arapaho Language Lodge) off the ground.
On May 11, 12 and 13, the 2nd Annual National Native Language Revitalization Summit will be held in Washington, D.C., with a special meeting called “From Code Talkers to Immersion: Native American Language” on May 12 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The events are organized by Cultural Survival, a nonprofit based in Cambridge, Mass., the National Alliance to Save Native Languages and the museum. The public is welcome to events at the museum.
A similar convening occurred after the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act of 2006 was passed by Congress. But with only $2 million of the potential $10 million appropriated to support language preservation, programs at dozens of nations have had to look elsewhere. Many operate on a mix of dollars from the nation and grants. Teaching language to new generations of children is expensive work that doesn’t fall readily inside standard grant cycles.
Grounds, Yuchi, left his teaching position at the University of Tulsa to work with his people on language preservation. Grounds, who has a doctorate of religious history from Princeton Theological Seminary, understands the need in the terms of a moral imperative to keep on the tongue of today’s children the language of their ancestors.
“The good news,” Grounds said, “the reality is that there are effective methods for bringing back our languages. The problem is we have very few resources and very little time.”
Yuchi is a language isolate, which means it is unique, and is not spoken by anyone else. The nonprofit Yuchi Language Project offers free classes. Since the program began, one of the elder speakers has died. Five remain.
“People are little aware of the very extreme crisis,” Grounds said. “Three out of four Native languages in North America are only spoken by the grandparents’ generations. In other words, there aren’t fluent speakers having kids and raising kids so the language can be carried forward.
“It’s a crisis all over Indian country, but there is silence.”
The generations since everyone in a Native nation spoke their language are growing distant. With that generational shift, Wilson said, even languages that were thought to be strong because of the number of speakers are seeing marked declines among the young.
The cold, hard fact is we may be deluding ourselves.
“We are in a generation that has been able to separate language and culture,” Wilson said. “It’s the first time in history that we have been able to say you can have one without the other. A lot of older people aren’t comfortable. In ceremonial protocols we have to do things in English.”
Maybe each of us has a role in language preservation, said Fred Nahwoosky, Comanche, senior program advisor at NMAI.
“Actually, I am one of those people who know words and phrases, but is not conversant; I often hold myself up as that example. I am not atypical for anyone who grew up in a community.”
One of the barriers to language preservation is the long arm of shame that stretches from boarding school experiences to contemporary generations. Sometimes it is the fluent speaker of a Native language who is ashamed, sometimes it’s the non-speaker who is afraid of being scorned for stumbling over words.
But the time for hesitant action is over. Nations, whether federally recognized like the Northern Arapaho or not, like the Yuchi, must establish goals and make commitments. Wilson said often the objective of language preservation must bubble up from the grassroots of Native nations for the elected leaders to take hold.
This is no time for half measures with the clock on preservation of indigenous languages ticking. Immersion programs, Wilson states, are the proven method for language preservation.
This investment of indigenous language in our children is an investment in the future of Native nations.
Kara Briggs, Yakama and Snohomish, is a columnist with Indian Country Today. She owns Red Hummingbird Media Corp., and she lives at the Tulalip reservation in Washington State. Reach her at email@example.com.