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What’s Lost When a Language Disappears

A third of the Indigenous languages used in America two decades ago have gone extinct, and Congress isn't doing enough to preserve what remains.

On Being/Flickr Creative Commons

The cultural practices and locales that define the hundreds of Native communities dotting the North American landscape are grounded in languages. Each is unique, with distinct dialects, accents, and slang. There are words, phrases, and concepts that do not exist in the American English lexicon, that confounding colonizer speech that Native Americans were forced to adopt and master. And nearly all of them are in danger of going extinct. In 1998, there were 175 Indigenous languages still in use within the United States. Today, there are 115. With each passing year, as elders are laid to rest and new babies are born, Native people lose their tongue.

Even though the English language was violently imposed, Native people have used it as a tool of struggle and beauty—as poet Tommy Pico said at a speaking engagement last month: “We didn’t ask for English, but it’s ours now, and look what we’re doing with it. You’re welcome.” While true, it still does not replace what is swiftly evaporating. As a Native person whose language was decimated and is only recently beginning to be stitched back together, I know the intangible feeling of hearing my own language through an elder’s voice on the phone or a cousin’s patient assistance in navigating a difficult pronunciation. It’s an experience of kinship that cannot fully be replicated in this second tongue. Learning a Native language is not only about knowledge or authenticity; it extends a symbol of a thriving and unique culture to the rising generation. It’s the cadence of survival. And if it goes silent, a great tradition is broken.

On Monday, in a small step to preserve this tradition, the House passed the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act, named after the legendary Tewa linguist. With the Senate vote already in the bank, the measure is headed to President Trump’s desk. Like a variety of other set-term appropriation bills, the legislation, which was first passed under George W. Bush in 2006, has to be renewed by Congress every five years to maintain the funding. And like so many other necessary pieces of legislation, it is still deficient.

The latest version of the bill, coming at the tail end of what the United Nations has dubbed the Year of Indigenous Language, will seek to lower the bill’s previous class-size restrictions, which were preventing tribes from obtaining federal grants to establish their own language programs because many smaller tribes had lower enrollment numbers than what the grant applications required. The need to lower that threshold speaks to the dire state of Indigenous languages in America.

The Department of the Interior approves applications for federal recognition based in part on whether a tribe has a distinct political system, land claim, and shared set of cultural practices, among other signifiers. That is to say, the federal government—the same body that sought to raze our speech, snuff out our religions, steal our land, and effectively end our various ways of life—is now in charge of determining who is Native enough to be considered a sovereign nation.

Writing for High Country News in November, Cherokee Nation podcast host and writer Rebecca Nagle, who also works as an apprentice in the Nation’s Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program, laid bare the historical roots and modern reality of endangered Native languages. The American government, for part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, attempted to eliminate any and all Native languages through federally funded boarding schools, where Native children were compelled to act as American citizens and nothing else. This included punishing students who dared speak their Native language, with some reports detailing kids having their mouths washed out with soap any time they uttered a word in the language they grew up hearing in their home.

The boarding school era and its erasure of language is a blot on the nation’s record, and one that too few non-Natives have been forced to reckon with. But this cultural genocide did not begin with the Carlisle Indian School in 1879: Carlisle and the copycats it spawned were just the mass institutionalization of a practice that had been underway for centuries.

As the colonizers first washed over the continent and its people, the various European governments and the churches they brought with them understood what Captain Richard Pratt, the U.S. military leader and Carlisle founder, meant when he said that he sought to “kill the Indian ... and save the man.” As long as Natives could communicate in a tongue that colonizers could not penetrate, their cultural and spiritual practices would continue, and as a result, so too would their claim to independent nationhood and the land they’d stewarded for centuries. So, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the early peddlers of organized religion, most of them Christian, set up shop on Native land along the East Coast and worked their way west.

From the early forts to Carlisle to the Termination Era, assimilation was all a means to an end—namely land and capital—and language was always among the first things the colonizer sought to rip out. It stood as the most important barrier between the Indigenous nations and the Europeans (and eventually the Americans), so they were determined to demolish it.

The general experience of losing one’s language to American preference is not unique to being Indigenous. It’s an American philosophy, one that is echoed in the experience of the children of immigrants whose parents do not teach them their language, in an attempt to shield them from racism. The president enforces a regime of assimilation when he declares, “This is a country where we speak English. It’s English. You have to speak English!” Racist law enforcement does the same when officers treat the sound of another language as pretext for a stop or search. It is present in mundane interactions in which one’s own language is treated by others as a signal of danger.

Against this climate of hostility, learning one’s Indigenous language serves a purpose that is bigger than what is transactional or academic. While it is dangerous to ascribe broadly painted features to the hundreds of tribes in America, reciprocity constitutes a great deal of the Native experience from nation to nation, and this extends to language. It is gifted to us with the hope and expectation that it will be passed down to the next generation, so that they too may withstand the tricks and brute force of colonization. The work that the Esther Martinez Act will accomplish is obviously crucial, but it is difficult to look beyond the transactional nature of the bill and the programs that it establishes.

The rescue of Indigenous language by way of the federal government may be too little, too late. I’m saying this not out of defeatism, but because it will in all likelihood be the efforts of tribal nations, and not the U.S., that saves Native languages. As Nagle pointed out, the Department of Health and Human Services, in addition to a handful of other federal agencies, approved just 29 percent of tribal applications in 2018, and its funding is minuscule in comparison to the nation’s previous erasure campaign. “For every dollar the U.S. government spent on eradicating Native languages in previous centuries, it spent less than 7 cents on revitalizing them in this one,” Nagle wrote.

Many of these languages are not even a full lifetime away from disappearing. They exist for as long as the heart of the elder who carries the words continues to beat. One day, that heart will stop, and so too will the language. Without the immediate funding of these programs, the expedient approval by Trump and then by HHS and other agencies, and the active increase in participation by Native youth, it stands to reason that the number of surviving languages will drop further by 2050. Seminole Nation citizen and Creek language teacher Jade Osceola best articulated the stakes when speaking about the eighth-grade language program she’s helped keep alive:

Language is what makes you different from all other Native Americans across the country. It’s not your food. It’s not your clothing. It’s not any of that, and you can’t do your ceremonies without language. That’s what makes us different. That’s what puts us on the map.

There is a narrow timeline to correct course, which tracks similarly existential struggles playing out in parallel. In order to prevent the worst possible outcome—the extinction of Native languages—the state’s response, to merely acknowledge its role in causing the problem and make funds more easily available, is a useful but inadequate solution on its own. That’s why it’s important to remember that the push to rescue these languages did not come solely from the American government; it is happening because nations and elders and youth are rising up and resisting the slow but steady turn toward assimilation. The process of learning a language can be arduous, but in crafting a way forward, Native people have always managed to make the process more often joyful and engaging—such as the efforts of Constance Owl, an Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation citizen, to translate the Cherokee Phoenix archives, or the Navajo Nation’s recent youth-aimed recording of “Baby Shark” in Diné.

Even on the best of days, fostering these Native languages will still be costly and require persistence. But it’s worth it, to reclaim and pass down one’s Native language. When your time comes, what will be the last words you utter? More to the point, how will you say them?