Indigenous language revitalization: Native American communities reclaim their culture

Indigenous languages provide direct insights into native cultures, revealing their unique traditions, beliefs, and way of life. Language revitalization aims to preserve this cultural heritage, tying communities together and connecting them with their ancestors.
Indigenous languages provide direct insights into native cultures, revealing their unique traditions, beliefs, and way of life. Language revitalization aims to preserve this cultural heritage, tying communities together and connecting them with their ancestors.
Isabella Zarzar
More than words

When one thinks of America, it’s natural to picture its rich collection of cultures and its array of diverse perspectives and languages. However, the cultural and linguistic heritage of Native Americans — the original inhabitants who once breathed life into these lands — has been marginalized and overlooked throughout history.

Many are familiar with the common languages of the world. For instance, one might regularly hear others speaking Spanish or Arabic in public places. 

How about Native American languages like Ojibwe, Inuktitut, Choctaw, and Kwak’wala? 

Not so much.

Currently, over 7,000 languages are spoken across the globe. Indigenous peoples are speakers of more than 4,000 of these languages despite constituting less than 6 percent of the world’s population.

The number of speakers of these Indigenous languages, however, continues to decline. According to the United Nations (UN), it is estimated that an Indigenous language dies every two weeks.

Cautionary estimates suggest that more than half of the world’s languages will become extinct by 2100, meaning they will no longer have any native or second-language speakers.

More shocking calculations predict that up to 95 percent of the world’s languages may become extinct or seriously endangered by the end of this century, with a significant majority of these languages being Indigenous. Roughly 40 percent of languages are already endangered, often with fewer than 1,000 speakers left.

Language is a tool for human communication, but its significance goes much further. While it might seem tempting to question the necessity of preserving more rarely spoken languages, dismissing these languages overlooks the intricate connection between language and culture.

Expressing yourself in the way that your ancestors did makes you feel connected to them on a deep level. Strengthening our language has truly been my life’s most important work.”

— Kimberly Lawhon

Shonna Alexander, a tribal member and language apprentice in the Language and Culture Department with Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, says that revitalization activities are a source of community strength as language ties into all aspects of cultural life. 

“Language and culture go hand in hand. Knowing our language deepens our connection to traditional songs, plants, and animals, making us feel whole. When we learn our language, it feels like pieces of us that we didn’t realize were missing come back,” Alexander said. “We are reclaiming who we are, showing our resilience, and making our ancestors proud. When we empower ourselves in this way, we begin to reverse the damage caused by years of oppression.”

Kimberly Lawhon, a Chukchansi tribal member who has been working in language revitalization for nearly 20 years, expresses similar ideas.

“Bringing language within a cultural context is important for us not just to restore our language but also to restore our traditions with it. Expressing yourself in the way that your ancestors did makes you feel connected to them on a deep level. Strengthening our language has truly been my life’s most important work,” Lawhon said.

Silenced voices: A history of oppression

Before the arrival of European colonists, North America was home to around 300 distinct languages. Today, about 155 Indigenous languages are spoken in the region, with 135 of those languages only spoken by elders and at least 50 having fewer than ten speakers each.

Having endured generations of oppression, Native Americans and their communities continue to feel the legacy of colonization today in various ways.

With an influx of European settlers since the 16th century, Indigenous peoples faced displacement from ancestral lands, often resulting in loss of livelihoods and traditional ways of life. 

The imposition of foreign customs, religions, and governance systems eroded native cultures, further weakening Indigenous identities and compelling them to abandon their native languages. 

One of these systems was the establishment of boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries. The federal government used these schools to assimilate Native American children into American culture, forcibly taking children as young as five from their families for long periods to teach them the ways of the dominant society.

European colonists viewed Native American lifestyles as uncivilized and believed their duty was to “civilize” Indigenous children. Boarding schools strictly prohibited Indigenous languages, punishing students who spoke them with beatings or washing their mouths out with soap. Consequently, most students abandoned their native languages.

“My grandmother was the last fluent Ojibwe speaker in my family. My mother started learning the language, which inspired me to start learning as well. There are a lot of challenges when learning it as a second language, but I feel like I’ve made progress in reviving our culture after years of oppression faced by my ancestors,” Chalykoff said.

Chalykoff’s grandmother and his grandmother’s parents were some of the many Native Americans relocated to residential schools, where they were punished for speaking their language. Those experiences, along with other traumas within the community spanning generations, led to his grandmother’s eventual loss of language fluency. Following his great-great-grandmother’s passing, Chalykoff’s family lost its primary source of Ojibwe, marking the end of cultural language transmission in his household.

This situation is common among Native American tribal members.

“Over the last 150 years, we’ve had so many Chukchansi tribal members that ended up going through the boarding school system, and we lost so much of our culture during that period of time. Because we are striving to gain that heritage back, language revitalization really draws attention and participation from our people,” Lawhon said.

The struggle for growth

Learning a new language involves a great deal of practice. To retain new vocabulary, one must use it often. With many Native languages endangered, finding opportunities to use them can be extremely difficult. 

If you want to learn French, you can simply travel to France and find yourself immersed in the language and culture. Unfortunately, immersion settings for Indigenous languages are often rare and usually must be artificially constructed.

However, according to John-Paul Chalykoff, every language has different circumstances and challenges. Chalykoff is an assistant professor in Anishinaabe Studies at Algoma University and a member of Michipicoten First Nation, an Ojibwe community in Canada on the northeast coast of Lake Superior, where he has also served as an elected councilor.

“We have thousands of Ojibwe speakers. On the whole, the language is safe, although there are only about a dozen speakers of the specific dialect that I’m working to save. Regardless, this situation is a lot different than those of some of the languages that are down to five to 10 speakers,” Chalykoff said.

There are also generally very few learning resources available for endangered languages. In contrast, more common languages such as Spanish or Mandarin have a whole body of media in the form of popular music, shows, and articles that can encourage potential learners.

Even when a person has the desire to learn an Indigenous language, components such as the general complexity of the language can deter them.

“Most of our Chukchansi population is made up of fluent English speakers. What many of them find is that learning an Indigenous language is wildly different from English and a lot of the Indo-European languages that they might have been exposed to. For example, in regular public education, you might take classes in languages like Spanish or German, which have similar structures,” Lawhon said. “People just assume that learning an Indigenous language will be similar to that experience even though it’s actually more difficult. So when the learning starts to get challenging, it’s hard to keep people engaged. The complexity of the language itself scares people.”

Other obstacles include uncertain funding and the difficulty involved in consistently providing quality language programs to all those who want access to them.

As a result of these persistent threats to the revitalization of Indigenous languages, many languages continue to lose speakers.

But even if a language’s number of speakers dwindles down to nothing, there is still hope for revival.

When a language dies out, it can be brought back through intense revitalization efforts. Such was the case with the Myaamia language. It went dormant in the middle of the 20th century, according to Kara Strass, the director of Miami Tribe Relations at the Myaamia Center, a joint venture between the tribe and Miami University. 

Today, the language has been revitalized largely through archival documentation. Some Miami tribe members have described the language as “sleeping” rather than “extinct” since it is being spoken again. 

“I grew up with a family that didn’t know any of the language because it had been oppressed to the point of dormancy. Learning my language is an important part of becoming more involved in my community. It is a hard, slow process, so I expect to be a lifelong language student. Our language is the most efficient way for us to express our Myaamia culture and develop our identities. Because of that, I will never stop learning,” Strass said.

Conquering cultural decline: Methods of revitalization

Indigenous communities, linguists, teachers, and language activists have been developing and experimenting with an array of diverse methods to revitalize endangered languages for decades.

These methods must be implemented according to local needs and goals. While language revitalization focuses on having an impact in terms of proficiency, there is also great interest in strengthening identity, resilience, and well-being among community members.

For example, an engaging way to increase the use of an endangered language may be to produce materials like books, plays, and music in the language.

As a musician, Chalykoff is exploring various avenues of revitalization. He has written about six original songs in Ojibwe so far.

“I’m currently trying to combine language, music, and education. As for music, I’ve been hoping to try to  encourage others to write new and original songs in the language rather than the typical dull translations of mainstream nursery rhymes that often don’t give much insight into Ojibwe culture.”

More structured methods for impactful language revitalization include the master-apprentice program, which was developed in California in 1992. In this program, a fluent speaker is paired with a learner. The two then meet together, participate in immersion sessions, and do daily activities together while speaking only in the language.

Furthermore, language nests and immersion schools serve as essential programs dedicated to fostering new generations of native speakers. In a language nest, infants and toddlers are exclusively immersed in the Indigenous language during their daycare experience.

As children progress, the instruction becomes more structured, maintaining the use of the native language. Additionally, elders actively participate, assisting in language teaching. Immersion schools further this approach by conducting all classes exclusively in the Native language throughout the school day. 

Both the Maori community in New Zealand and Native Hawaiians, for example, have achieved remarkable success with these initiatives, cultivating a new wave of fluent speakers and preserving their linguistic heritage for future generations.

Efforts in language documentation are also a fundamental component of revitalization. Language documentation is a specialized branch of linguistics dedicated to meticulously describing the grammar and usage of human languages. Its main objective is to create a thorough record of the linguistic patterns unique to specific speech communities. 

Not only do we need to have teachers and speakers, but we need learners who are dedicated enough to advance the language.”

— Kimberly Lawhon

The field not only captures the intricacies of language structure but also dives into the social and cultural contexts in which these languages are used. By preserving these linguistic nuances, language documentation plays a vital role in safeguarding the diverse linguistic heritage of communities, providing valuable insights into human communication and culture for future generations.

Lawhon agrees that these methods are impactful, but the commitment of the learners and teachers is also crucial.

“In my tribe’s initiatives, we had a group of people who were dedicated to helping, whether there was funding or not. When we didn’t have programs going on at a time, we were still able to still work and keep things moving. Not only do we need to have teachers and speakers, but we need learners who are dedicated enough to advance the language,” Lawhon said.

In 2005, Lawhon saw the Chukchansi tribe open its own school for young children, infusing their language into teaching.

“It gave us the first opportunity to be in charge of our own education. It was the first time we could say we wanted our language back. When it first started, though, the consensus was that our language was so far gone that it wasn’t worth the time or effort to revitalize it,” Lawhon said.

Despite this, Lawhon was able to connect with other tribal members who were willing to put effort into teaching the language. She tried to follow the language nest model as it’s easier for people to learn a language when they are younger.

The tribe had an after-school program going from about 2007 until 2016. Last year, the tribe finally started a language department with permanent funding. Although this is a significant step in revitalization, growing the language remains difficult.

“When I first started in 2005, there were probably a dozen fluent speakers. Every few years, we’re losing more and more elders who, at their age, can’t put forth the necessary effort and energy to teach during school hours. Time goes by so quickly, and 12 teachers can turn into two in 10 years. But we are still seeing long-lasting impacts on our learners, and that matters a lot.”

Bridging the generational divide

Language revitalization can often serve as a means to bridge generational gaps within communities. Knowledgeable elders actively engage in passing down their language to younger people and children to keep their cultural heritage alive.

“When you spend time with elders to learn language and culture, you aren’t just gaining knowledge; you are letting them know that they are valued and important to you. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. You are making memories and learning generations of knowledge that you will be responsible for by passing it on to the generations after you,” Alexander said.

Educating younger generations provides a chance to help them navigate challenges you once faced, offering valuable lessons learned from your own past mistakes, according to Chalykoff.

“I often tell my students that some of the things that took me five or 10 years to figure out, I hope I can help them navigate within their first or second year of learning. I aim to assist them in fast-tracking through the things that gave me a hard time.”

Many tribal members believe that, if taught properly, young people will proudly continue the work to bring back Indigenous languages. They are hopeful that the efforts of revitalizing our language will be passed down, keeping our culture strong and connected.

“As an adult, language doesn’t stick in your brain as well. Sometimes, I even forget words that I taught them. But when you teach a young person, they remember it forever because it becomes part of their life. The children in our program are exposed to more of our language than the majority of tribe members were in the past, Lawhon said. “Seeing not only their retention but also their passion and respect for the language proves that our efforts were not wasted. I have confidence that young people will carry our language better than the generations before them.”

About the Contributor
Isabella Zarzar
Isabella Zarzar, Highlander Editor
Isabella Zarzar is a junior at Carlmont High School and in her second year of journalism. She enjoys reporting on a variety of topics and is thrilled to be editing for the Highlander magazine this year. In her free time, Isabella enjoys reading, photography, soccer, and spending time with her friends and family.

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    Brian AgbayaniOct 20, 2023 at 7:07 pm

    Hi Isabella — This is a wonderful article. Thank you for this excellent piece of journalism. This is a vitally important topic that you have researched and reported on very, very well. It is better written than most “professional” journalism published in commercial news outlets. In fact, such topics are usually ignored in popular commercial news. Please keep up the awesome work, and don’t stop pursuing and reporting on the truth.
    -Brian Agbayani, Department of Linguistics, Fresno State