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Sacred Languages

A relation to the sacred is inherent within many indigenous languages. The justification for the renewal of tribal languages is often the belief that language contains meaning that is not well understood or translated into English, or other languages. For many tribal cultural programs, language is a major strategy for renewing culture and identity. There is great wisdom in this viewpoint, but what can it mean?

Language is often seen as a way of seeing or conceptualizing. Different languages interpret the world differently. Some linguists argue that it is possible to express meaning from one language to another. They mean to say that ideas in one language can be translated into another, more or less accurately. Definition and expression may work this way. Some argue the reason that many Indian languages have very few contemporary speakers is that there is little economic value in speaking an Indian language that few others understand. One cannot get very many jobs in the American economy by speaking only an Indian language. Boarding schools and government schools emphasized English because they wanted Indian children to enter the U.S. economic and social system. In this view, trading an Indian language for English did not cause any loss expression, but empowered Indians to gain access to American economy and culture.

Did Indians lose anything in the transition to English speaking? If economic and cultural assimilation were the primary goals of Indian communities and individuals, then the answer is no. However, if your purpose is renewal of culture, community, and political autonomy, then how does speaking an indigenous language further that purpose. In many parts of the world, a community of indigenous language speakers in marker of cultural identity and continuity. In Latin and South America, Indians often are identified by their use of an Indian language. At the same time, detribalized Mestizos speak Spanish and have embraced the national economy and culture, and are not considered Indians. A community of indigenous speakers makes a cultural and political statement, and is a sign of cultural continuity.

Language, in indigenous communities, is holistically interrelated with social, environmental, and cultural ways of life. Languages contain inherent ways to view or understand the world. I have sometimes listened, with some amusement, to American University linguists puzzle over what they identified as a predominant emphasis on animate actions in many indigenous languages. While they note the pattern, they do not understand why. Whether stones, ice, or the moon have motion is very significant within indigenous worldviews and language. Indigenous religions are described as animistic. The word anima is of Latin derivation and it means soul. This expression works nicely with indigenous worldviews, that the world is full of motion or full of souls. We would like to say the world is full of sacred powers, but here the Latin expression of sacred takes us a ways, but ultimately fails us. Perhaps a better expression or translation is that the world is composed of many power forms that have the ability of movement, and can have consequence in everyday life. We need to respect all power forces, since they have personality and being. Furthermore, all beings are part of a holistic cosmic plan or order, and therefore all being is about becoming. In the Christian world, only humans have soul, but for indigenous understandings, the world is composed of many souls or beings. Indigenous languages, with their inherent emphasis on movement, expressed the deep philosophical expressions of being and becoming. In contrast, English is a trade language with a large vocabulary for naming objects that are seen as spiritually inherent products, things, or commodities. Perhaps no language could be farther away from an indigenous language or worldview—the world as potential commodity versus the world as cosmic movement.

When tribal communities renew culture through language, they must also teach about the philosophical processes of being and becoming that is inherent within the languages. Learning English has many practical, economic and educational values in the present world, and should be encouraged. Indigenous languages, however, should not have been suppressed, but rather encouraged, because they express the ways indigenous peoples understand being, becoming, ceremony, identity, and community.