Commitment to Native language: Kudos to NMAI

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Among our greatest contemporary heroes are the people in our communities working to teach fluency in our Native languages to the new generations. We all know that our Native languages are in serious trouble and some are facing fairly immediate extinction. Other languages that seem to still have a lot of speakers face a serious plummeting of those numbers as the over-50 age group passes on.

As Indian Country Today columnist Kara Briggs wrote recently: “The Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., has documented the decline in Native languages in the United States from 175 in 1997 to 154 today. In 1997, most languages were spoken by people [in middle-age] and older. Now more than half of Native language speakers are older than 70. Only 20 languages are now routinely spoken to children.”

The antidote to this dangerous condition facing Native American cultures is immersion in the languages for our children at an early age. It is clear to anyone wanting to learn a new language that the fastest, and often only way, is to exclusively speak that new language for extended periods of time, immersing oneself in the sounds and meanings, nuances and the connecting glue of understanding that is crystallized by human interactivity.

We commend the National Museum of the American Indian for its recent convening of “From Code Talkers to Immersion: National Native Language Revitalization Summit,” in Washington, D.C. In partnership with the National Alliance to Save Native Languages, Cultural Survival and the Potlatch Fund, NMAI gathered presentations by numerous leaders in the Native language revitalization movement.

Darrell Robes Kipp, Blackfeet, director of the Piegan Institute, a renowned Native language revitalization organization on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, provided the keynote address. Kipp is a hero, a clear representative of that wonderful American Indian down-home heroism that still emerges in our communities. There are many others, at some 40 immersion schools, all of which are founded and supported, instructed and managed by the best of our best, the many cultural warriors who commit daily to the creative enlightenment of our peoples.

Our languages and our spiritual and cultural values are not for mere translation. Those teachings give us direction in life; they teach us that we are good, that we are at our best being who we are meant to be. Curbing the social pathologies that haunt our communities, and particularly young people, begins with the cultured teachings of our elders. That is the only base from which to build our communities’ resistance to abuse and violence – through families and tribal intervention, serious rites of passage processes and school programs.

In a statement to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Ryan Wilson, Oglala Lakota, president of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages, emphasized that Indian students who attend language immersion schools display lower rates of truancy and drop out, and experience fewer disciplinary problems and substance abuse. They out-perform counterparts who attend regular, English-only schools.

The recent Summit at NMAI was intelligently and indigenously put together; kudos to NMAI’s Fred Nahwooksy, Comanche, who spearheaded the effort for the museum. The summit offered a full day of training workshops on language immersion and funding issues, and included a tour and seminar on language documentation at the National Anthropological Archives. It also provided a second look at the museum’s acclaimed banner exhibit honoring Code Talkers and a formal reception to honor these appreciated elders.

The event succeeded most of all because it was primarily focused on assisting community efforts. We hope this particular focus continues to garner attention and resources to be spent on Native languages and traditional knowledge.

By sponsoring these types of events – “summit” is a fitting designation – NMAI continues to move in the direction of fulfilling its promise to be a beacon of civic engagement for Indian country, America, and all indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. There are good signals at NMAI – a quarterly magazine of deepening dimension; a stronger connection to indigenous peoples in Latin America; more compelling Web presence and stirrings of some very promising exhibit themes; a more rigorous scholarly approach.

The day after the summit, the group of cultural activists expanded their time in Washington, D.C., to convene on Capitol Hill for a program to educate their Congressional delegations “about the critical importance of defending and increasing support for Native language programs through the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act.”

This is all very encouraging.