On Native Language Revitalization

Saturday September 22, 2012

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

In general, I tend to be pretty disillusioned with the American political system, especially when it comes to Native American affairs, but even I can recognize that good things are occasionally accomplished. This week the Senate Indian Affairs Committee voted to reauthorize the Esther Martinez Native American Language Act which was created in 2006 with the leadership of Senator (then Representative) Tom Udall from New Mexico (with whom I served two internships as an undergraduate). The act was an effort to help regenerate endangered Native American languages, and was named for a woman from San Juan Pueblo in New Mexico who had dedicated her life to preserving the Tewa language.

Language revitalization is a term that describes tribal and governmental efforts to preserve what are considered to be dying languages, and is one of the biggest concerns in Native American cultures today. Native people often say that without language there is no culture; while there is reason to debate that, it is true that when a language dies a crucial part of the culture dies. In Native American communities language revitalization is necessary because of past policies (and even some current policies) of the federal government toward Indians and the education system in general, which I have written about in this article.

While the situation is quite dire in many communities where there are few if any language speakers left, there are other communities which have accomplished dramatic results in their work to regenerate heritage languages. This is especially true in Hawaii, where just 30 years ago the Hawaiian language was considered a dying language. The creation of language immersion programs and schools have reversed this trend and Hawaiian is now visibly a vital language in the islands.

Sen. Udall, I applaud your efforts and thank you for your continued work in Indian country.


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