Native Languages

President Biden continued his strong support for Native American causes and cultures this week when he signed two bills into law supporting language revitalization and education. The bills were authored by Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who, as chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, listens closely to the Indigenous community in Hawaii. (We on the mainland sometimes forget that Native Hawaiians too were pushed aside by invading Euro-Americans, but a friend in Hawaii regularly sends me word of actions and programs by Natives there that mirror the concerns of our Plateau Tribal neighbors here.)

According to Yahoo News, the president signed the two bills on January 5.

“The first bill signed Thursday by Biden is the Native American Language Resource Center Act, which will establish native language resource centers across the country with the capacity to create grants and offer other forms of support to organizations that perpetuate native languages.

“The second bill—the Durbin Feeling Native American Languages Act—aims to periodically review the aid offered by federal agencies to ensure updated, well-coordinated efforts that best support the revitalization of native languages.”

Senator Schatz chipped in: “As we have seen in Hawaii, Native speaker-led language programs have proven that culturally based instruction is key to revitalizing and maintaining indigenous knowledge and traditions.”

I’ve probably said it before, but will say it again: In my second language, Turkish, there is a saying: “One language, one man; two languages, two men.” I can remember from living and speaking there over fifty years ago, and from only two trips back in the intervening years, that Schatz is absolutely correct about language being key to maintain “knowledge and traditions.” It was indeed like being two people in my one skin. My sense of time, humor, and ways of doing business and having pleasure were rooted in the language—and the people I was sharing that language with.


In the United States, we gradually allowed English to overwhelm other languages that gained some foothold in the country as it grew. We tolerated—allowed schools to use—German in many eastern and midwestern states until World War I. We allowed “little Italies” and Irish and Yiddish enclaves to grow in Eastern cities, and the Polish community of Hamtramck its own space in the middle of Detroit, Michigan. I once had a roommate from Hamtramck, and remember him bringing back Golumpki—Polish cabbage rolls—after holidays, and bragging about his Polish city within a city.

Eventually, education and the migrations of immigrant groups allowed English to overwhelm other languages. I learn from Google that old Hamtamck is now a majority Moslem city, but, as its immigrants are from multiple Moslem majority countries, I imagine their lingua franca is English. My old history professor, Dennis Strong, said years ago that if America is a melting pot, it’s always melting towards Anglo.

The erasure of Native American languages was not conducted in such a benign or gradual way. In the 1880s the United States government launched a full-on attack on Native languages and cultures. Boarding schools did not allow Native languages. And, in the bargain broke up families, the carriers of language and culture. They took young children away from parents and mixed them with children from other tribes. The allotment program took dead aim at tribal ownership of property, pushing individual tribal members to take up “allotments” of land which they would manage individually—and pay taxes on! Other laws allowed Indian agents to outlaw dance and dress on reservations, and Christian missionaries preached their various versions of Euro-Christianity. It was all aimed at obliterating language and culture.

Miraculously, although it all amounted to real damage—to individuals, families, and tribes—they were unsuccessful in their attempt to completely destroy languages and cultures. Elders and families hung onto things, often hiding regalia and drums, and their songs, dances, and words. They hung onto the words and stories of coyote and raven, the stories that taught and carried culture. The names of plants and animals, and the ways of living with those plants and animals.

Tribal people are speaking and reviving over 250 languages in America today. Native chefs are reviving native foods. Non-native people read Braiding Sweetgrass and listen to the ways and means of restoring salmon, lamprey, camas, and cous. Native stories of water, fire, and buffalo herds fill books and magazines as we search for ways to relate healthily and properly to the worlds beyond ourselves. Ways to peel back some of what mono-lingual mono-cultural thinking and monocropping agriculture and natural resource use has done to us lie in the words and cultures that are now being remembered and recaptured.

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1 Comment

  1. Well said Rich Wandschneider​…not so different from what those in Tibet are experiencing as their country is still in grasp of those that want to do the same to them. Dear friend’s mom has a hidden room to conceal all they have of their Tibetan culture and the Dalai Lama and soldiers move thru their villages regularly to check that all have had their Covid jabs…..

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