Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 10, 2001 - Issue 31



Saving Native Languages


by Sheila Morago and NIGA

On February 23, American Indian and Alaska Native scholars, native language instructors, and community leaders gathered at the United States Senate for a symposium entitled “Saving Native Languages.” There was a call to action because tribal elders are concerned that many young Indian children are not learning their native languages. The experts explained that before Columbus over 500 native languages were spoken in North America. Today there are less than one hundred native languages in everyday use, and of those, 40 are threatened and 60 are endangered, according to Dr. Ophelia Zepeda, Prof. of Linguistics at the University of Arizona.

Steve Emery, Director of the Policy Development Institute at Sinte Gleska University in Rosebud South Dakota, explained: “The United States Government did everything it could to wipe out our languages. My grandfather was horsewhipped for speaking Lakota when he was a youngster at a BIA boarding school. The punishment and humiliation heaped on our grandfathers and grandmothers when they were young simply for talking to each another in their own languages silenced many of our people. That is the background of the problem that we face today.”

Other experts pointed out that the intensive influence of outside culture makes it difficult for Tribes to pass on their heritage. Buddy Brown, General Counsel for the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Alaska, explained, “Our first contact was only about 100 years ago, but the influence has been devastating. Our people were told you must learn English to make a living in the white world; so many folks in our village who are about 50 years old do not speak the language. My mother has struggled to learn our language fluently and she is a language instructor for our young kids, but everyone young and old needs to speak our native language.”

The loss of native language is linked to other social and economic problems in native communities. Mr. Brown said, “Last month, we lost three members of our Alaska Native village to suicide. They were my close relatives, and I attribute their deaths to the dislocation that so many of our people feel when we are cut off from our native language and way of life.”

Today, there is new hope for native languages. A number of Tribes are using revenue from Indian gaming to promote native language instruction. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, for example, require native language instruction in tribal schools and high school seniors must be able to give an address in Ojibwe prior to graduation. At Shakopee Sioux, Carrie Schommer said, “In spite of the punishment at boarding school, we kept speaking our own language, and kept our Dakota identity. I am delighted that after years of struggling to teach our language, the Tribe is now able to help fund our program so that our children learn the spirit of our Dakota people by speaking our own language.” Studies show that American Indian and Alaska Native children who receive instruction in both English and their native languages do better in school.

Other Tribes pointed out that even with the advent of Indian gaming, there are so many tribal needs, such as health care, safe drinking water, and housing, that they are still struggling to fund native languages programs. Evelyn Ankerpont, Director of the Parent Pride Program at the Pueblo of Isleta explained, “Though we have a high rate of native language use among the elders, the Isleta children are not using the language. The Parent Pride Program incorporates the Isleta language program with other cultural programs such as teaching traditional cooking, arts and crafts and stories and songs. It is very important for the Pueblo of Isleta to have a language program. Our children must understand Isleta to be able to understand other aspects of their traditional way of life. Our elders are passing on and so is our language. Without the language program, we will lose our language. We need help to keep our language program alive, to keep our language alive. We are having funding problems because we are considered a “rich” tribe because we are a gaming tribe. We are not rich.” And, of course, only one-third of Indian Tribes are engaged in gaming.

Two-thirds of Tribes have no gaming revenue, and the 2000 Census reveals that once again poorest counties in the United States are located on Indian reservations. Steve Emery said, “Cheyenne River, my own Tribe, has the poorest county in the Nation within our borders. And our Lakota people live in true poverty. We need help to fund language programs. These programs not only teach the language, they give our kids a sense of true identity, grounding in the community that we need to overcome the scourge of poverty.

Dr. Sam Billison, President of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, talked about the use of Navajo codetalkers in World War II. “The United States called on us to use our language as a code to help fight World War II. We could send a coded Navajo message and on the receiving end, the Navajo marine could decode it two or three minutes. That saved hours of decoding time, and our code was never broken.” Before the U.S. Marine Corps began using Navajo codetalkers, the mathematical codes in use were often broken by the Japanese, who learned of ship and troop movements, which cost hundreds of lives. Dr. Billison, is seeking appropriate recognition for the Navajo codetalkers. “Our Navajo soldiers used the code in active fire zones, like Guadalcanal, and the codetalkers deserve the medal of honor.”

Dr. Billison, decried the rise of “English-only” laws. “We use our Navajo language in our government meetings, and it is part of our everyday lives. The English only movement is a threat to our language because it means some in Congress will try to cut funding for bilingual education, or take away our bilingual voter programs. That’s not right.”

Those gathered at the conference concluded that it is time to act to save native languages. Professor Ray DeMallie of the University of Indiana explained, “Tribes can use new technologies to teach their young people the languages, but it is important to act now, to pass on the knowledge of tribal elders.” Milo Yellowhair, Oglala Lakota, called upon everyone to join hands in a circle to pray for guidance from the Creator. “This is from the heart,” he said. “Our language and culture is who we are. It is too precious to put a price on. We must save our languages.”

The National Indian Gaming Association cosponsored the event with the Indigenous Language Institute to bring attention to issues that are important to Tribes. “With Indian gaming revenue, our Member Tribes are working to undo 200 years of conflict, oppression and neglect. They deserve credit for those efforts. But the public also needs to know that most Tribes do not have gaming revenue, and the United States must continue to help and to honor its trust responsibility to all Tribes.”

For more information please contact the presenters directly:

Dr. Ofelia Zepeda (Tohono O’Odham), Professor of Linguistics, U of A – (520) 621-8294
Gerald Hill (Oneida), Chairman, Indigenous Language Institute – (920) 869-2055
Steve Emery (Lakota), Policy Director, Sinte Gleska University – (605) 856-4262
Dr. Samuel Billison, President, Navajo Code Talkers Association - (520) 871-5468
Janice Bad Moccasin, Asst. Administrator, Shakopee Sioux Community – (952) 496-6146
Carrie Schommer, Dakota Language Instructor – (952) 496-6146
Glen Wasicuna, Dakota Language Instructor – (952) 496-6146
Evelyn Ankerpont, Director, Parent Pride - (505) 866-1144
Sharon McCully, Exec. Dir., Intra Dept. Council – (202) 690-5780

SOURCE: National Indian Gaming Associations

Indigenous Language Institute


National Indian Gaming Association


Indigenous Languages and Speakers in the US




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