Preserving Native Languages: No Time to Waste

Commissioner Sparks with her Mother

By Lillian Sparks, Commissioner, Administration for Native Americans

When I was a little girl, my mother taught my sister and me the words and phrases that are central to our lives as Native Americans.  “Mitakuye Oyasin,” she would say.  “We are all related.” These lessons were woven into our everyday communication, not set aside for special occasions.  Hearing and speaking Lakota made me a proud bearer of my identity; it brought an extraordinary culture to life.  However, today many native languages are in danger of dying out, taking with them an irreplaceable part of the first Americans’ traditions.

Native languages have been in decline for decades; currently Ethnologue lists 245 indigenous languages in the United States, with 65 already extinct and 75 near extinction with only a few elder speakers left.  This is why the Native American Languages Act and the Esther Martinez Act are so important.  Under these authorities, the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) provides grants to native communities and nonprofits to reverse the loss of native languages and teach young people to revere and speak them.

The focus of November’s Native American Heritage Month is the youth who will carry our traditions forward while they make their own way in the larger society.  It is well known that native youth confront a host of educational, social and economic challenges.  Many of us who work on these issues are appalled by the dismal health, substance abuse, and poverty statistics, even as we strive to turn them around. Yet, a consistent bright spot has been the commitment of tribal communities to connect with youth through native languages.

 I have had the privilege of visiting a native language nest in Minneapolis, Minn., where Dakota and Ojibwe are taught to young children in child care centers, touring the Ya Ne Dah Ah school in the village of Chickaloon in Alaska where students in grades K-8 are receiving an education based in their Ahtna Athabascan language, and participating in the ceremonies of the first graduating class of the White Clay Language Immersion School during the Ft. Belknap College commencement in Montana.   At all of these places and many more, I witnessed the positive effects of Native language revitalization efforts and felt great pride that ANA was able to play a small part.

In September 2011, we held a language symposium for all of our grantees to learn what works for native language retention, renewal, and survival.  While many of the suggestions we received require state or local action, the federal government can certainly play a constructive role.  For example, we will consider extending the length of grants, coordinating more effectively among existing educational settings, and hosting a language conference for youth.  These suggestions hold promise for realizing the most from our investments. 

Recently, an elder remarked that the solution to the problems facing native communities can be found within the culture, not from outside.  Language preservation programs are, at their essence, about keeping hallowed cultural traditions alive, about the older generation passing on its wisdom to the younger generations, just as my mother did for me.  The very act of one generation teaching another creates a sacred thread of interconnectedness and belonging that is critical to any young person’s development of confident personhood. Instilling such self-esteem is especially necessary for Native American youth who must overcome many social and economic disadvantages in order to realize their fondest dreams.

I believe that language preservation is an indispensable rung on the ladder of achievement for Native American youth.  During this month, let us recommit ourselves to helping young people treasure and embody that which is uniquely beautiful in the cultures of their birth.

To learn more about the Administration for Children Native Language Preservation and Maintenance resources, see our Native Languages page.