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Preservation On The Reservation [And Beyond]
Fall 1999

Online Archive

*  Reclaiming Indigenous Languages

(photo) Grandmother and granddaughter, both members of British Columbia's Heiltsuk tribe.

"Of the 300-plus languages indigenous to what are now the United States and Canada, nearly a third have disappeared. Only about a quarter of those that survive are being passed on to children. [Without intervention] all of these languages will fall silent within the next few decades. "

Teresa L. McCarty and Lucille J. Watahomigie

by Teresa L. McCarty and Lucille J. Watahomigie

"What then, if the children forget the Navajo language? What will be our shield as we move forward into the future? . . . Both English and Navajo should be learned, without emphasizing one over the other."

What if the children do forget? This testimony by a Navajo elder cuts to the heart of the issue. She also captures the enormity of the task: with English so pervasive, how can a balance be struck? The challenges seem overwhelming. Of the 300-plus languages indigenous to what are now the United States and Canada, nearly a third have disappeared. Only about a quarter of those that survive are still being passed on to children. Without some immediate intervention, all of these languages will fall silent within the next few decades—an enormous and irredeemable loss.1

If new generations are not to forget their language and the collective memory it holds, then traditional learning environments must be reconfigured and restored, and new ones created. Here we look at efforts among indigenous communities in the United States to accomplish this. In many ways it is a story of remarkable resilience.

Many are programs we have developed or worked with ourselves. They illustrate the possibilities, not just for bringing the language back, but as suggested by the elder's remarks, for moving it forward into new social settings as well.

Language Immersion

Indigenous language immersion in the United States can be traced to the Maori Kohanga Reo or "language nest" preschools in New Zealand. There, young children are literally "bathed" in Maori throughout the day, in communication-intensive interaction with elders. This is complemented by language classes for adults, especially mothers.

Hawaii was first to adapt the Maori approach in the United States. After being banned in schools for 90 years, the Hawaiian language and culture were nearly decimated. Hawaii is now experiencing a native language renaissance. The movement began with university-level classes, a weekly Hawaiian language talk show, a newsletter, student and teacher groups, and Hawaiian-only camping trips. In 1978, Hawaiian was recognized as a co-official language (with English) in the state. Shortly thereafter, a group of parents and native language activists founded ‘Aha Pu_nana Leo ("Nest of Voices"), a total immersion preschool supported entirely by parental funds and labor.

As their children grew, Pu_nana Leo parents successfully lobbied the state for Hawaiian language schools. Today, an entire educational system is in place, from pre-K to the university level.

The Pu_nana Leo now serve 175 children in nine full-day, 11-month preschools, providing instruction entirely in Hawaiian. In elementary schools, children are educated in Hawaiian through fifth grade, when English is introduced as a subject. Student achievement in these programs equals or surpasses that of Native Hawaiian children enrolled in English language schools.2

In the Navajo Nation, immersion has also proven effective in halting language loss while aiding student achievement. Unlike Hawaiian, Navajo claims over 100,000 speakers. Yet it, too, is losing ground to English, especially among youth.

A recent study by Navajo linguist Paul Platero, for instance, shows that less than 50 percent of children in reservation Head Start preschools speak proficient Navajo. And a subsequent study by Wayne Holm, director of the tribe's Navajo Language Project, found that without immersion schooling, children who come to school speaking Navajo speak it less well by their fifth year of schooling than they did as kindergartners.3

With this in mind, Holm and a group of parents and public school teachers at Fort Defiance, Arizona launched the first Navajo immersion program in 1987. The program consists of kindergarten reading in Navajo, with English reading and math introduced in first grade, followed by a half-day each of Navajo and English in second and third grades and one hour of daily Navajo instruction in grade four.

By the third and fourth grades, Holm reports that immersion students performed as well on English tests as students who spoke English only and were "way ahead" in math. These students achieved precisely what the research in bilingual education claims: They acquired Navajo "without cost" to their progress in English or other subjects. Moreover, they are living examples of the value of bilingualism—a fact that increased confidence in the program and encouraged the Navajo Nation to implement early immersion programs across the reservation.

Bilingual Education at Rough Rock

At the Navajo community of Rough Rock, the context is unique not only in its large number of native speakers, but also in the tribe's relatively long written language tradition. In 1980, Teresa McCarty joined a three-year project to develop bilingual educational materials. The project staff (all community members except McCarty) first surveyed attitudes toward the Navajo language, using these data to develop Navajo/English teaching materials. The staff then worked with parents, teachers, and students to implement those materials in the classroom. Similar programs were growing at a feverish pace across the Navajo Nation at the time. The net effect was the creation of a practical, teachable literature—probably the largest indigenous literature in the U.S.—and a cadre of native language teachers.

Two recent federal grants have spurred new developments at Rough Rock, enabling the school to begin a pre-K-12 language program. At the elementary school, parents and elders work alongside teachers. At the high school, students engage in applied research and apprenticeships to developing Navajo and English literacy as well as mathematics and technological ability. In addition, the program sponsors summer camps in which students work with elders to learn livestock management, ethnobotany, drama, storytelling, and native arts. The elders' oral stories are then entered into a hypercard software system for classroom use.

Master-Apprentice Programs

Some of the boldest efforts at language reclamation are being carried out in situations where the language is most threatened. In California, where 50 indigenous languages are spoken—none as a mother tongue by children—a radically different approach is being tried. "We cannot simply send people off to a community where their language is spoken all the time," linguistic anthropologist Leanne Hinton notes.4

Instead, the remaining speakers and their communities must create new environments where the language can be reconstructed and used. With this as a goal, 16 teams of master teacher-elders and younger apprentices are working together, cooperating in everyday activities, communicating always in the heritage language. There is no direction from outsiders and no special curriculum. All that is required is commitment and intensive immersion in the language.

In her overview of these language revitalization efforts, Hinton reports that several apprentices have achieved conversational proficiency. But the benefits of such programs, she maintains, go beyond fluency: Native instructors have learned effective new teaching methods, and children have developed a sense of pride in their ancestral language.

Other Language Preservation Work

With the exception of Navajo and Mohawk, most indigenous immersion programs have concentrated on oral language. What about efforts to reclaim indigenous languages in their written forms?

Hualapai, a Yuman tongue spoken by approximately 1,500 people, is among the world's "smaller" languages. Just 50 percent of the school-age population speak it. On the Hualapai reservation in northwestern Arizona, the language is being revitalized among the young.

Unlike the Navajo, whose written language tradition stretches back 150 years, the Hualapai had no practical orthography until a bilingual education program was funded in 1978. Creating a writing system from scratch is a challenge that very few speakers of larger, "world languages" can understand. After a false start with an academic linguist who perceived that her role would be directing rather than helping, the Hualapai entered into what would become a life-long literacy development partnership with linguistic anthropologist Akira Yamamoto. The rest of the story hinges on the long-term collaboration of Lucille Watahomigie, Yamamoto, community elders, and a small but committed school staff who literally "grew their own" writing system, curriculum, and faculty.

In the process, they organized the Yuman Language Institute, a university-accredited summer program at which native speakers, educators, and linguists developed writing systems and teaching materials in several Yuman languages. As more indigenous communities became involved, the Yuman Language Institute grew into the American Indian Language Development Institute at the University of Arizona, which enrolls hundreds of native educators from throughout North America each year. AILDI faculty and participants drafted the Native American Languages Act, the only federal legislation that explicitly vows to protect and promote indigenous languages.

AILDI helped the Hualapai bilingual education staff develop grammar, a dictionary, and a series of attractively illustrated children's literature. Recently, the school introduced an interactive technology component that involves students in videography and computer publishing in Hualapai and English. Evaluations show consistent improvements in standardized test scores and school attendance as well as a virtual elimination of dropout rates. The program's innovations and results led the U.S. Department of Education to recognize it as a national demonstration project, to be adopted by other indigenous schools.

Other language immersion programs have been developed by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians–a group renowned for their high rate of language retention–and by the Wind River Arapaho and Mohawk tribes. In Oklahoma, where 27 indigenous languages are still spoken or are in the process of being revived, teams of elderly speakers, novice learners, and linguistic anthropologists are creating new learning environments as they document and teach the language. In Massachusetts, Aquinna, Mashpee, and Assonet tribal members have constituted the Wampanoag Language Revitalization Committee to reconstruct Wampanoag, which is no longer spoken. According to collaborating linguist Kenneth Hale of M.I.T., their chief resources are historical records, including the Eliot Bible of 1663, the first bible in any indigenous language to be published in the Western hemisphere.5 And in Puerto Rico, the Taino—a group long declared "extinct"—are resurrecting the language and a living Taino identity.

On Linguistic Self-Determination and the Future

We agree with Ken Hale that these and other language rescue efforts have the character of a miracle. They are living testimony to a people's determination to protect their own, and the world's, cultural and linguistic diversity. This in itself is reason for optimism. Though varied in their contexts and methods, all of these programs share certain characteristics:

Intervening early in children's lives

Protecting the language from intrusions in English

Blending authentic oral communication with challenging academic content

Validating the local culture and incorporating it into language instruction

Making a strong commitment to involving teachers, children, parents, and elders in the language learning enterprise.

These examples show that literacy in indigenous languages is a whole-community effort; it is also a reversal of historic power relations that have silenced these languages so fiercely and for so long. Literacy cannot replace the spoken word, but it can reinforce its transmission. Indigenous literacy is an affirmation of identity, which creates new forms for expressing local knowledge and tangibly connects the language with the history and culture of its speakers. At the same time, indigenous literacy forms a proactive bridge to English and the wider world. Finally, literacy programs stimulate other, more diffuse forces for language maintenance. The very processes by which indigenous literacy is constructed are community-building processes: They raise consciousness about the value of the language even as they empower speakers with the tools to protect it.6

We have highlighted only some of the language reclamation work under way. There are many other inspiring stories. This work convinces us that much can be accomplished by small groups with great commitment. We close with a few guiding thoughts on this necessary work.

Commitment. Personal and group commitment constitute the foundation for successful language reclamation efforts. But commitment must be coupled with a clear understanding of what is at risk. The loss of native languages will only be exacerbated by half-hearted and ill-informed attempts—which brings us to our second consideration.

Knowledge of what works—and what doesn't. Each language community is unique. What works for one may not work for another. Knowing the appropriate course of action requires an honest assessment of a community's attitude towards its language and their relationship to outside power hierarchies. This means confronting the question of whether stakeholders really want to maintain the local language and if so, what a "yes" vote implies.7 This information can then be used to heighten community awareness, enhance dialogue, and build coalitions.

Collaboration. Virtually all the language revitalization initiatives we know of have involved collaborative teams of speakers and non-speakers, insiders and outsiders, school-based and community-based personnel. This joining is by no means problem-free. The most effective projects acknowledge this, express participants' differences, and recast those differences as strengths.

Eternal vigilance. If indigenous languages are to live in the minds and tongues of future generations, the price, language activist Clay Slate reminds us, is everlasting vigilance.8 Language reclamation is a social and political process as well as a linguistic and educational one. A good part of the process is building lasting relationships between speakers, families, communities, and schools. The best way to ensure these arrangements will survive is the heart of the challenge: producing a new generation that speaks the native tongue.


1. See M. Krauss, "The Condition of Native North American Languages: The Need for Realistic Assessment and Action," International Journal of the Sociology of Language, vol. 132 (1998), pp. 9-21.

2. For more on the Hawaiian immersion program, see W.H. Wilson, "I Ka ‘olelo Hawai'i Ke Ola, ‘Life Is Found in the Hawaiian Language,'" International Journal of the Sociology of Language vol. 132 (1998), pp. 123-137.

3. For more on the Platero and Holm studies, and on Navajo immersion, see A. Holm & W. Holm, "Navajo Language Education: Retrospect and Prospects," Bilingual Research Journal vol. 19, no. 1 (1995), pp. 141-167.

4. See L. Hinton, "Awakening Tongues: Elders, Youth, and Educators Embark on Language Renaissance," News from Native California vol. 7 (1993), pp. 13-16; see also Hinton, "Language Loss and Revitalization in California: Overview," International Journal of the Sociology of Language vol. 132 (1998), pp. 83-93.

5. K.H. Hale, "Reasons to Be Optimistic About Local Language Maintenance and Restoration," unpublished ms.

6. For more information on the Hualapai and Rough Rock programs, and the development of indigenous literacies, see T.L. McCarty and L.J. Watahomigie, "Language and Literacy in American Indian and Alaska Native Communities," in B. Perez et al., The Sociocultural Contexts of Language and Literacy, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998, pp. 69-98.

7. N.M. Dauenhauer and R. Dauenhauer address this for Tlingit in their chapter, "Technical, Emotional, and Ideological Issues in Reversing Language Shift: Examples from Southeast Alaska," in Grenoble, L.A. and L.J. Whaley, Endangered Languages, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 57-98.

8. C. Slate, "Finding a Place for Navajo," Tribal College 4 (1995), pp. 10-14.