Native Languages: A question of life or death

Feb 15th, 2004 | By | Category: 15-3: English Only?, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

INDIGENOUS LANGUAGES GRAPHICDuring the Vietnam War, a Blackfeet man, Marvin Weatherwax, and three other soldiers were captured by the enemy. They hung the soldiers by the arms along the wall and asked, “What unit are you from? How many are in your unit? Where is your unit?” The first man spit on them and started cussing, and they cut him with a knife from kidney to kidney. The same thing happened to the second and the third.

When they came to Weatherwax, he told them what they wanted to know –but he told them in the Blackfeet language. They kept him prisoner for over three years and tried to figure out what he was saying, but Weatherwax spoke only Blackfeet. To this day, he believes that his language kept him alive.

Native languages meant the difference between life and death for not only Weatherwax but also for countless World War I and World War II soldiers.  Recent publicity has honored the work of the Navajo code talkers in World War II, but during both world wars, American Indian code talkers helped bring victory by using various languages, including Choctaw, Comanche, Lakota or Navajo words.

Today, learning Native languages continues to be of crucial importance to American Indian people, sometimes perhaps life or death importance. In Indian Country, the frequency of suicide among adolescents is more than double the national rate. Their despair and hopelessness have many causes, of course, but may be related to loss of culture and language.

Dr. William Harjo LoneFight, the president of Sisseton Wahpeton College, is one of the most passionate Native language advocates. He says, “When people spoke Dakota, they understood where they belonged in relation to other people, to the natural world, and to the spiritual world. They truly knew how to treat one another.”

Research has shown that when Native children know only English, their families and communities suffer from a breakdown in intergenerational communication, which sometimes leads to juvenile gang behavior and drug abuse.

An innovative government TANF(welfare) program in California recognizes this. The director of the Owens Valley Career Development Center in Bishop, CA, Paul W. Chavez, believes that culture and language programs provide a sense of identity to young people. The center puts the vast majority of its funds into prevention activities, such as the vocational education, Even Start, and language. This model is being expanded to serve four additional counties in the area.

The TANF-funded language program has a staff of 18. The language program director, Laura Grant, says, “We believe in starting at the earliest level [preschool]and building individuals from the ground up so they don’t get into these patterns that lead to welfare.”

More than a Fad

This generously funded program is the exception, however. While the needs for and the community interest in language work skyrockets, the availability of federal and private funding plummets.

Veteran language fundraiser Marina Drummer of the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival says funders have difficulty understanding the importance of language revitalization work in the context of issues more clearly associated with life or death, such as homelessness. They tend to think of language work as arcane and specialized like linguistics instead of the “absolute bedrock of culture.”

Funders sometimes see language programs as a fad, according to Janine Pease (Crow), the author of the immersion article in this issue. “Saying language programs are a fad is like saying that tribal colleges were a fad 30 years ago. The work is much too difficult tube a fad,” she says.

To build fluency, language programs need sustained funding for many years, not three or four-year grants. You can’t take a Berlitz course. Short-term grants are like “throwing a potato chip into the wind,” Pease says.

Outsiders also tend to feel that efforts are futile, merely putting off the inevitable time when all American Indian people will speak only English. For the past couple of hundred years, the American public largely has bought into the End of the Trail syndrome, a symbol created in the 1800s by sculptor James Earle Fraser. Artists such as George Catlin, Edward Curtis, and Karl Bodner also strived to capture images of the Vanishing Red Man, assuming that those Indians who were not killed would assimilate.

In 1877 the Secretary of Interior forbade children in the American Indian boarding schools from speaking “barbarous” languages, saying, “If Indian children are to be civilized, they must learn the language of civilization.”

The assumptions behind the Vanishing Red Man syndrome continue. Yet despite 200 years of concerted efforts to eliminate them, most of these tribes have survived, and many of their languages also have survived.

Today English Only advocates annually ask Congress to make English the “official language” of the United States. Nevertheless, in 1990, Congress passed the Native American Languages Act, which said that saving languages is part of the national policy. Funding has been totally inadequate, however.

Churches Should be Involved

Richard LaFortune (Yupik) and the Heart of the Earth, Inc., organization have a unique proposal for a private/public partnership that would infuse resources into language revitalization work following a Canadian model. Their proposal would involve churches, three agencies of the federal government, and Native organizations, such as the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the National Congress of Americans.

The federal government in Canada has decided to fund language and culture projects as part of its reparations for physical, sexual, and emotional abuse through the boarding schools, according to LaFortune. In Canada, as in the United States, the boarding schools harshly punished children who spoke their Native languages as they tried to purge them of their “barbaric” cultural practices.

Canada has proposed $47 million per year for 50-60 Native languages, according to his calculations. LaFortune compares this with the $2 million that the United States government is providing to save over 200 languages.  LaFortune includes the churches in the reparations plan because of their significant role in boarding schools and assimilation. He says it will take more than a generation of funding to fix things since boarding schools spent more than a generation trying to destroy cultures.

A handful of foundations are responding to the arguments of Native language advocates and providing significant funding for language projects – W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Lannan Foundation, Grotto Foundation, and recently Ford Foundation. The Congress is considering legislation that would provide additional funds for Native language immersion projects. We commend these efforts and hope that other foundations, members of Congress, and churches will study the Heart of the Earth proposal.

The late language advocate Ken Hale said every language lost is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre. Native languages are important to the economic, emotional, and physical survival of Indian people. They are also an important part of the world’s heritage. Like petroglyphs carved into rocks, these languages are fading and disappearing with time. They hold precious stories and knowledge that need to be preserved.

Marjane Ambler has been editor of the Tribal College Journal since 1995. For more information about Marvin Weatherwax, see Real Indians: Portraits of contemporary Native Americans and America’s tribal colleges (Denver: American Indian College Fund, 2003).  For the Richard LaFortune proposal, contact Heart of the Earth by email or phone (612) 331-9995 and ask for Living water: A cooperative mapping project for Native communities & language revitalization. (Minneapolis: Heart of the Earth, 2003).  For research about language, see the Resource Guide in this issue.

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