Celebrating International Mother Language Day and Supporting New Generations of Indigenous Language Speakers

a group of young students examining a deer antler
Students in the Grand Ronde Chinuk K-3 Immersion Project learning about language and culture in their classroom.

Michelle Sauve, Intergovernmental Affairs Specialist, ANA

February 21 marks International Mother Language Day, a day to recognize the linguistic diversity of the world and the fact that many of the world’s languages are endangered. Each year the Administration for Native Americans provides approximately $13 million dollars to indigenous communities in the Pacific, Alaska, and the Lower 48 to maintain or revitalize indigenous languages, with new  funding opportunities open now.  

For many tribes in the United States, their languages were forcibly removed from their homes, just as their ancestors were once removed from their land. In an effort to “kill the Indian to save the man” Native languages were not allowed in schools. Grandparents and parents became afraid to share this treasure with future generations, and gradually songs and stories in the original language began to fade.

Some people may wonder whether it makes sense to try to save a language still spoken by a handful of people in communities of only a few hundred or thousand people. Why save a language that is no longer used in trade and commerce, in most schools, or within families to rear the young? 

Perhaps only those who are listening, speaking, and learning every day understand the true worth of the work occurring in language strongholds. At ANA we have testimonials about the healing power of relearning or passing one’s tribal language to future generations. In one interview, a father shared that learning his language made him a better parent because there is no way to say “shut up.” The native language depends on more gentle methods of correction, and as a result he felt he was developing a better relationship with his child by using his native language.  

There is a high school in Massachusetts that will offer the Wampanoag language, Wôpanâak, to students in Mashpee for the first time. No one had spoken Wôpanâak for over a hundred years, and it was considered an extinct language. But a few decades ago, one tribal member with a vision and endless dedication, started the work to bring it back to life using archival documents, recordings, and the study of closely related languages.

ANA has been proud to fund the Wôpanâak Language and Cultural Weetyoo, Inc. as they conducted master apprentice programs to train community members to become teachers, some of whom are now teaching the high school class. They used an ANA grant to open a Montessori school for young children, and every day, teachers and children are immersed in the language of their ancestors. I have no doubt they will reach their goals of producing a new generation of first speakers.

Thankfully not every language has to be reconstructed from scratch like Wôpanâak, but even Tribes and Pacific Island communities with living speakers need to work to preserve their linguistic culture. Our hope is that Native communities and their mother languages will continue to grow and thrive, to teach children who can pass along languages to future generations.

ANA’s  funding opportunity for native language is open now and closes April 9, 2018.

Back to Top