Why Should We Keep Tribal Languages Alive?

Sonny Skyhawk
4/6/12

I can't stress enough the importance of retaining our tribal languages, when it comes to the core relevance or existence of our people. Our languages can teach us many things through daily use. Language can teach us respect, for ourselves and each other, our elders, women and most importantly, the things that allowed us to exist. Our children deserve nothing less than to have inherited their own language. You could argue that when a tribe loses its language, it loses a piece of its inner-most being, a part of its soul or spirit. That is how important and meaningful our languages are to us as the original inhabitants of this hemisphere.

Historically, our ancestors relied on our language to communicate with each other and sister tribes, and when we met other tribes, we utilized sign as an alternative language to communicate. Symbols or icons were also a source of documenting our history on stone surfaces or skins, known as Winter Counts, but languages were our main source of communicating with each other. You could lay blame for the loss of some of our languages on the Boarding Schools, where we were severely punished for speaking them, but that seems a weak excuse.

The truth is, it is our own fault and no one else's. Today, most tribal nations continue to struggle to retain their native tongues due to attrition, assimilation and lack of use, and sadly, some have lost them forever. Our tribal colleges and schools are our only line of defense or hope, when it comes to saving our languages at this point, because we have for the most part, refrained from speaking our languages fluently at home or amongst each other. Immersion classes have sprung up in some of our communities—but is it too late?

We have no choice; we have to assume it is not too late, but it is an ongoing struggle to keep our languages alive. My personal hope is that our present efforts will set the template for tomorrow, and that we can save our languages for those present today and those yet to be born. We need to retain and pass our tribal languages on to the next generations if we are to remain relevant as a people. We can make the comparison of losing our language to an explorer having lost his compass—and we cannot afford to lose our cultural compass, that which so clearly defines us. Speak your language if you know it, or learn it if you can, but do not let it go due to neglect. That is not who we are, or what we do, as a people. Now is the crucial time to protect and embrace your mother('s) tongue.

When it comes to native languages, the situation is simple: Use it or lose it.

Aho.

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richardberrelez's picture
richardberrelez
Submitted by richardberrelez on
If you lose your language you lose yourself, your family, and your people and you will lose more than land. Those that speak their language must teach the young, then the young can take it another step and make it a written language, then their children can create words for things where no words have have been given or created. This has to be done unconditionally out of love for your language instead of conditional. Then you will have a language that might survive into the ages.

WAMBLI MATO's picture
WAMBLI MATO
Submitted by WAMBLI MATO on
SIR, DO YOU SPEAK YOUR LANGUAGE? ITS ALWAYS NICE TO GIVE FREE "ADVICE", BUT, ONE SEEMS MORE BELIEABLE IF THEY CAN SPEAK THEIR LANGUAGE. HAHO NA HOKAHEY!

HARLAN EAGLE BEAR's picture
HARLAN EAGLE BEAR
Submitted by HARLAN EAGLE BEAR on
MR. SKYHAWK, YOU GIVE GREAT ADVICE. BTW, DO YOU SPEAK YOUR LANGUAGE? JUST CURIOUS AND, IF YOU DON'T, YOU DON'T. HOWEVER, I FEEL IF YOU'RE GIVING ADVICE, SHARING YOUR COMMENTARIES AND OBSERVATIONS, DON'T YOU THINK IT IS ALSO WISE TO "WALK THE TALK"???? PLEASE DON'T TAKE THIS PERSONAL, BUT, I'VE FOUND OVER THE YEARS FOLKS SUCH AS YOURSELF WHO GIVE ADVICE FREELY CANNOT EITHER SPEAK THEIR LANGUAGE OR HAVEN'T EVER LIVED ON A "REZ"! BEING A NATIVE AMERICAN IS A 24/7 ONGOING RESPONSIBITY, INCLUDING SPEAKING YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE. HAHO NA HOKAHEY!!!!

Scnpaqci's picture
Scnpaqci
Submitted by Scnpaqci on
Chis sqelixw u qe sqe?elixw lu Selish(I am a human being and my language is Salish) ...S'pe'-xm(Bitterroot is the band I am from)... Chiqs 'tuulmist u siscut pistem chn uwewlsh l qe Selish nuwewlshtn. (I am going to make myself feel better and be smart when i talk in our salish language) Ha ishe kw uwewlsh t selish(Do you know how to talk Salis?..uneh u tah(yes or no?)...chn n'kwn'kwucin.(I am saying one word at a time).u chn aytcin...(and i am speaking with passion)..Axlasqt (everyday

G. Pago's picture
G. Pago
Submitted by G. Pago on
I must say I'm rather offended at the author's claims that it is our fault the languages were lost as a result of residential schools. Were the children supposed to just continue to speak their languages even though they were brutally tortured and beaten each time they did? What of the cases when there was no one to even speak it to. Blaming children who were tortured is obscene, in my opinion. It is certainly not our fault. However the criminals and psychopaths who did this to us didn't feel one bit sorry about it, most of them are long dead, and the inheritors of their culture don't give one whit except to gloat at the cultural destruction their people have wrecked. It is up to us and only to us to seize back and rebuild our own lost languages. To do so is necessary in order to retain and to recover our identity.

Mayela1810's picture
Mayela1810
Submitted by Mayela1810 on
Giving up the ability to speak more than one language is akin to giving up the possibility of getting hired for a job. Of course, those persons who speak one language will discourage those who do from doing so, bringing bilingual, trilingual individuals down to their level, don't be fooled. While the bilingual person is being made to feel ashamed, embarrassed and uncomfortable for speaking other languages, those mocking them are the ones receiving college credits and degrees for learning a different language. Interesting that most Spanish/French teachers are rarely of Spanish or French descent. Curious, to say the least. Signs reading "Speak English" everywhere, and yet, most students in foreign language classes are "English Speakers", ironic or something fishy is going on.

Red Bear's picture
Red Bear
Submitted by Red Bear on
Hello to all peoples i have made a comment about half -breeds getting ahead for themselves. i do apologize to everyone it really not about being full-blood although thats where i got my teachings being raised in ceremonies. it takes the mind,heart & spirit to be one with life. its not the skincolor. thank you to all our leaders, athletes,artist...etc.......... may the GreatSpirit watch over us all & our future generations..Rockchild=Inyan Hoksicila

Sandy Champagne's picture
Sandy Champagne
Submitted by Sandy Champagne on
I believe that our language should be taught to old and young alike. My mother would never talk to me about being Indian, and now that I am liking closer to my tribe it is hard for me to find out more of our life

tina's picture
tina
Submitted by tina on
my parents admitted that it was "their fault" (after frustrations to teach us at an older age) that they didn't speak the language to us. I am not offended and I don't think they would be either. they did not attend a boarding school, they attended public schools.

Lena's picture
Lena
Submitted by Lena on
It annoys me when we as natives say that the school system should teach our language. Its ridiculous! The schools systems can barely manage the regular curriculum, not to mention just getting dedicated teachers is challenging. Ultimately, its the family's responsibility; parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, friends, clans people, etc. If we don't value our language enough to use at home how do we expect our young people to want to learn. Its the daily exchanges that really allow better learning and a deeper understanding of the language in a given context. But then I notice its only in America that people make a big deal about learning languages as if it is a foreign and highly complex concept that requires a trip to the moon and lots of money. There are people in many parts of the world that are multilingual. The only difference is..... they are motivated. When I grew up only Dineh bezaad was spoken in our home. I don't even recall when I learned English all I know is I was able to understand it one day. My siblings and I interpreted for our parents and it amazes me now but I'm beginning to forget words. But of course the reason is because I don't live around my people so I don't use the language daily. It scares and worries me. But you can bet I speak Navajo every chance I get. And yes I speak it to my nieces and nephews especially if I know they understand. I do pretty good with Spanish too and if my husband's family spoke their native language you can bet I would have learned. But I'm motivated because of my fascination with cultures......... for which language is the key.

Robin"Desert Eyes" Hurd's picture
Robin"Desert Ey...
Submitted by Robin"Desert Ey... on
I believe in keeping our language alive. In my home as I grew up my parents did not let English be spoken unless there were guest who only spoke english. I did have a hard time at first in school (white school) but I made it (I have two masters). Education was very important in our house, be it education about our heritage or white education as we have to live in both worlds. it is up to the parents and elders to keep this going as my grandparents believed.

City Slicker's picture
City Slicker
Submitted by City Slicker on
Education starts at home, including learning your native language. I was taught by my late parents to speak my first language and haven't forgotten it. I'm proud of it and like to speak it every chance it get. I've lived off the Rez in the city for decades for employment and surrounded by non-natives. I speak the language when a young co-worker stops by and it amazings them as they don't recognize the tunes. When I meet individuals from my tribe and they don't speak the language, a frequent remark I hear is, What good is it to speak it? So, the ones that want to learn and speak the native language will and the ones that aren't interested will continue to not speak the language. Some high schools require students to take and learn a second language. Per this policy, they are able to learn a foreign language. English is a foreign language to me. Learning your tribal language is a choice and I encourage parents to teach their children. So, more power to those that speak their native language as they understand a lot about their culture.

Belinda Ayze's picture
Belinda Ayze
Submitted by Belinda Ayze on
We've reach a point where we have to save our languages. It's now out of desperation to maintain cultural connections, and traditions. Dismissing yourself is no longer in.

friida's picture
friida
Submitted by friida on
this is how much i know of my ancestors language...."How", i learned it from the lone ranger, not my parents, who didn't know any of it, and what little my grandparents knew went to the grave with them. So, I, as a young girl, who had NO idea i was native, should have sought out native speakers of my language and learned it? IT'S YOUR FAULT FOR NOT TELLING ME SOONER. :)

KnightofSwords's picture
KnightofSwords
Submitted by KnightofSwords on
I believe all tribal members should seek out and learn their native languages. I have been studying my tribe's language actively for the past eighteen years. I am forty years old now. I also learned some from my full blood great grandmother who died when I was nine years old. Our ancestors were great people and it dishonors them to not keep our tribal languages alive. I live on the reservation and I think of it as an opportunity to learn my language which is harder to do living far away. I have relative elders who taught the language so it is part of my heritage. Also my ancestor was a hereditary and elected chief who a famous author wrote in one of his books that no one in the tribe of his contemporaries spoke the language better than my ancestor. I am a descendant of hereditary as well as elected chiefs as well as a nephew of chiefs, medicine men, councilmen, and language teachers. So it is my duty and honor to speak my language to keep my tribe's legacy alive. However, I am fluent in English and can speak some spanish. I am open minded to learning some French and Japanese as well. I also know some other tribal words from other tribes. We can be part of the global community and contribute in a meaningful way. But, by knowing ourselves and our languages allows us to keep our traditions and culture alive. We can still keep our jobs and work in the world. We just need to keep our languages alive as they are on the verge of extinction.

deanna standing rock's picture
deanna standing rock
Submitted by deanna standing rock on
I don't like to have to get educated to teach my language at the schools..at times I am used in these classes...I figure if you want to learn it pay for it ...my language is of the utmost importance to me...today people dont care until it is to late....
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