Reading, Writing and Preserving

Reading, Writing and Preserving: Native Languages Sustain Native Communities

“Most people know that we are losing species. Ask schoolchildren, and they’ll know about the panda or the orchid…but ask someone if they know that languages all over the world are dying, maybe one in 10 might.”

These are the words of Bob Holman, poet and expert on oral traditions, sounding the alarm on an impending Extinction Event in indigenous languages. Holman played a key role in the PBS documentary Language Matters with Bob Holman, produced by David Grubin. Scholars estimate that there are more than 6,000 languages spoken throughout the world, but we lose on average one every couple of weeks and hundreds will likely be lost within the next generation. According to Holman, “By the end of this century, half the world’s languages will have vanished. The die-off parallels the extinction of plant and animal species. The death of a language robs humanity of ideas, belief systems and knowledge of the natural world.”

In some ways, the loss is even greater than the loss of an animal or plant species. According to Joshua A. Bell, anthropologist and curator of globalization at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, “Language diversity is one of humanity’s most remarkable achievements.” Indigenous people are the greatest source of this diversity and have the greatest stake in its preservation. Natives who can communicate in their own languages have an even richer appreciation of their own heritages and command a deeper understanding of their culture and communities. For the Native communities themselalves, fluency in Native languages complements efforts for greater social unity, self-sufficiency and identity. And for those outside these communities, sustaining this cultural diversity enriches all of us and helps greater cross-cultural understanding.

Declaring Emergency

International organizations recognize the crisis. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) publishes an Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, edited by Christopher Moseley, and now in its third edition. UNESCO estimates that there are about 3,000 endangered languages worldwide, and the Atlas lists about 2,500 (among which 230 have become extinct since 1950). The interactive online version of this publication uses intergenerational language transmission to measure degrees of endangerment.

The U.S. government, major Native organizations and the Smithsonian itself have long been part of the fight to save Native languages, where possible marshaling resources to support tribes and Native speakers. Congress passed the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act in 2006, providing support for Native language immersion and restoration programs. The Native American Languages Act of 1990 recognized that “the status of the cultures and languages of Native Americans is unique, and the United States has the responsibility to act together with Native Americans to ensure [their] survival.”

In late 2012, the Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration for Native Americans, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education and the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on promoting instruction and preservation of Native American languages. A Native American Languages Summit met in Washington, D.C. in September 2015, to celebrate 25 years of the Native American Languages Act. The Summit discussed long-term strategies for immersion language programs, trumpeted the work of youth-led efforts to revitalize languages and encouraged evidence-based research, education and collection of language documentation.

American Indian organizations are increasingly active. In 2010, The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) declared Native languages to be in a state of emergency. This leading Indian advocacy organization declared that the crisis was the result of “longstanding government policies – enacted particularly through boarding schools – that sought to break the chain of cultural transmission and destroy American Indian and Alaska Native cultures.” Tribes understand that tribal identity depends on language and culture.

John Haworth (Cherokee) is senior executive emeritus, National Museum of the American Indian – New York.