month of November is Native
American Heritage Month. A recent editorial
by Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National
Museum of the American Indian, suggests that "the vast majority
of Americans have a limited -- and often mistaken -- understanding
of Native American history."
That so? Native American languages can offer deep insights into
our nation's history. Here's seven things to know about Native American
1. This time of year, there's lots of talk about the Pilgrims
and the Indians and their celebration of a harvest feast together
back in the 17th century. Well, here's some history through language.
Those were the Wampanoag Indians, indigenous to southeastern Massachusetts
and Rhode Island. As one consequence of this colonial contact, the
Wampanoag language, part of the Algonquian language family, gradually
ceased to be spoken. But through the efforts of the Wôpanâak
Language Reclamation Project, founded by Jessie Little Doe Baird,
community members have given voice to their language once again.
Looking for a great movie to fit in between football games after
that big turkey dinner? This amazing story of language lost and
reclaimed is told in the documentary, We
Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân.
2. Maps! United States geography shows that many names for rivers,
mountains and towns originate from the languages spoken by the Native
American tribes indigenous to particular areas. For example, Texas,
where I live, is a state name coming originally from the Caddo word
for friend or ally (which then got borrowed into Spanish), according
Bright's Native American Placenames of the United States. Given
that Native Americans predate English speakers on this continent,
this should be no surprise.
3. It's stunning how many different language families are indigenous
to our continent, more
than fifty! Sure, North America's pretty big, but for comparison
sake, Europe has only three main language families. Game over, Europe.
4. Native American languages played a key role in World War
I and World War II. Native Americans in the military used their
languages in carrying out missions, including by transforming ordinary
words of their language to encode military vocabulary. These soldiers
became known as 'code
talkers,' coming in largest numbers from the Navajo Nation,
and representing tribal citizens who spoke least 16 distinct indigenous
languages, including Cheyenne, Osage, Comanche and Choctaw.
5. Boarding schools designed by federal educational policies
removed American Indian children from their homes and communities
and put them into boarding schools. These devastating policies are
one reason that the survival of Native American languages is threatened.
Manatowa-Bailey, Director of the Sauk Language Department puts
"There is a direct relationship between the introduction
of white education and the decline of the Sauk language. Prior
to the Sac and Fox Manual Labor Boarding School there was no institution
among Sauk people in which a person was removed from intimate
family, clan, and tribal relationships in order to learn.[italics
mine] Compulsory white education for Sauk children began in 1871
with 24 students at the mission school... Within a span of 60
years Sauk went from being spoken by almost every tribal member
to being spoken mostly by older people amongst themselves. Not
a single tribal member born in the 1930s or beyond successfully
passed on fluency to their children."
6. Two states have recognized their indigenous languages with
official status. Alaska recently
became the second state to do so, with 20 languages indigenous
to the state. Hawaii started this trend. The Hawaiian language has
since blossomed, with a resurgence of young
Hawaiian speakers and immersion schools and college degrees -- all
in the language.
7. In 1990, the Congress passed the Native
American Languages Act, declaring it U.S. policy to "preserve,
protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans
to use, practice, and develop Native American languages," including
in classrooms, to ensure the survival of these languages. The Act
is up for renewal in Congress right now.
This may be a lot of history, but Native Americans aren't history.
Neither are Native languages. It's November. Celebrate Native American
Heritage Month. Celebrate Native American languages!
Want to be in the loop for the latest on Native American language
and revitalization? Follow the Native
American Languages Lab on Twitter.
is Native American Heritage Month
The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration,
National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art,
National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum join in paying tribute to the rich ancestry
and traditions of Native Americans.
Language Reclamation Project
Reclaiming our language is one means of repairing the broken
circle of cultural loss and pain. To be able to understand and speak
our language means to see the world as our families did for centuries.
This is but one path which keeps us connected to our people, the
earth, and the philosophies and truths given to us by the Creator.
-- jessie little doe baird, Project Founder
Still Live Here (Âs Nutayuneân)
We Still Live Here (Âs Nutayuneân) tells a remarkable
story of cultural revival by the Wampanoag of Southeastern Massachusetts.
Their ancestors ensured the survival of the Pilgrims in New England,
and lived to regret it. Now they are saying loud and clear in their
Native tongue, Âs NutayuneânWe Still Live Here.