Biden and Haaland and Indigenous Languages

It’s something new—and mostly good—every day. Today, in Native News Online, we learn that:

“600 people attended the Tribal Language Summit at the Oklahoma City Convention Center to hear from leading educators and policymakers in Indian Country on how to protect, preserve and promote America’s Indigenous languages.

“’As Indigenous peoples, our languages are the heart of our identity and the source of our strength as the first peoples of this continent,’ Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Wizipan Garriott said during Tuesday’s opening presentation.”

“The summit is in its eighth year. Its funding is mandated by the Memorandum of Agreement on Native Languages, signed by ten federal agencies in the Biden Administration in November 2021, including the Department of the Interior and the Department of Education.”

It is so far removed—and yet so close in time, that we, as a country, were suppressing and trying to eradicate Native languages. It was a principal objective of the boarding schools; it was part of the package of Termination and Relocation in the 1950s. Language and family is what makes a people; we would unmake Native America.

I remember Alvin Josephy telling me that it takes about 2500 years for a language to distinguish itself, become separate from its mother tongue. The fact that there were over 500 distinct languages in North America at the beginning of colonization convinced Josephy that Indians—indigenous Americans—were here in greater numbers and for a much longer period of time than most early anthropologists surmised. Recent physical findings—at Coopers Ferry in Idaho and in the Southwest desert, corroborate Josephy.

The sheer number of tribes and languages, their adaptations to the wide variances in climate and land and water conditions, and the myriad ways that indigenous people have resisted and adapted to colonization set the stage for the revival of cultures and languages that is going on today.

There is a sub-theme to this, a major difference between the historical Native experience and the African experience beginning with slavery. Africans were bought and brought from many countries and cultures, mostly on the continents western shore. They were herded like animals onto cramped boats, mixed by culture and language—purposefully I believe, as it would have made resistance even more difficult without common languages among prisoners. In the new world, African-Americans by force adapted English as a mother tongue, and descendants have gone on to develop art, music, and literature, and to excel in sport and entertainment with styles and manners that we identify as an African-American culture.

There is no American Indian culture, but a plurality of cultures. And although there has been some amalgamation of dance and ceremony, and there are processes in the use and care of natural resources that cross from tribe to tribe to tribe, indigenous American strength is still in its diversity, and in the particular knowledge of place and resources. It is in the languages, cultures, foods, and practices that are being revived from Alaska to the Atlantic, from the Haudenosaunee to the Hawaiians.

A little help from President Biden—and from his most revolutionary cabinet level appointment, Deb Haaland at the Department of the Interior, is moving the process of revitalization along. This language conference being in its eighth year means that it began during the Obama administration, so let’s give a nod there as well. Joe Biden is quietly—or not so quietly—fostering a Native revival that is, by the true definition of the word, revolutionary!

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