Lose Your Language, Lose Your Tribe

Mother Language Day

February 21 was International Mother Language Day. It is a day to celebrate the diversity of the world’s languages and to support each other in the battle to retain this most important part of who we are. All Natives should take time everyday to reconnect with, learn or share the language. Learn a word or phrase ever week, use it as often as possible and then teach it to someone else.

I am chair of the Karuk Language Restoration Committee (KLRC). We are a group of interested community members, Tribal and non-Native, that shares a love of the language and work to restore it to vibrancy. We have been working together since I came home from college in 1986. The KLRC helps set the policies, teaching strategies and develop grant proposals to ensure we have a vibrant language program for our future generations.

Like many Tribes, the language of the Karuk people stands at the precipice of oblivion. We are the second largest tribe in California with around 4000 members but have only a precious handful of less than 10 fluent speakers. It is a truism but each time an Elder speaker passes we lose a dictionary of words and language resources as well as an encyclopedia of cultural knowledge. It is another cliché, but one rooted in truth, that there are some concepts and tenets of culture that cannot be translated into English. Wellness, for Native people, is based upon the inter-connectedness of the physical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional health of the people, and language is the binding agent that connects all of those into a culture.

An anonymous quote I often use is extremely harsh, but also painfully accurate IMHO. “If you lose your language you are no longer a member of your tribe but rather a descendant of tribal members.” The ability to think, speak, dream and pray in your language is what connects us to our ancestors and cultural heritage. It is this link that upholds the health and wellness of the Native community Language is the method of transferring our traditional knowledge to future generations.

There is significant effort in NDN country to turn this dire situation around and to pull our languages back from the brink of extinction. Small groups meet every day in classrooms, kitchens and community centers working diligently to piece together the tattered remnants of their indigenous Language. From pairs of master speakers and their apprentices, to full blown language immersion schools, we are making progress towards the goal of hearing our languages used on a daily basis.

I have been a reviewer for the Administration of Native Americans (ANA) language grants since it’s inception in the early 90’s, until now. I am willing to review and assist language programs in developing their applications. I recall in that first round of applications we received nearly $30 million worth of requests for the meager $1 million we had to disperse. We were literally doing language triage. Deciding if a Tribe had too few speakers or resources to warrant use of our limited funds or if the bigger tribes, although still in need, had the critical mass that relieved us of the need to provide them funds. It was morally agonizing to have to make these decisions. Help came in the mid 2000’s with a little more ANA money coming in through the Ester Martinez Language Act but there is still a desperate lack of monies available to serve all of the language needs of the Tribes in the US. This doesn’t take into consideration that ANA funds can only be used for federally recognized tribes.

The KLRC, as have many Tribes, has created a long-term strategic plan to revitalize our ebbing language. Just let me know and I will share the process with you. I encourage you to take the time to map out a similar blueprint. This can ensure your efforts build upon each other and you don’t end up 5-10 years down the road little further than where you started.

As Natives we share the common history of linguistic genocide. Our people have had their languages brutally taken from them by government policy and western pressure to assimilate. You owe it to the people of your family and Tribe who have gone on before you to take a stand to maintain your language so the poetry, wisdom and cultural knowledge of your mother tongue is preserved for the benefit of those yet to come. Be ready to encourage (in some cases cajole or challenge) the Tribal Council to fund your efforts even when there is not a particular grant for language. Help ensure that language is a major priority for your Tribe.

Assisting your language to survive and flourish does not have to be complicated. Anyone can start out with one or two small things. One thing you can do is holding a speakers event where you bring Elders together so they have someone to talk with in the language. That helps the people who are not confident in their speaking ability to become more at ease with sharing what they know. There are a growing plethora of resources to help maintain and rejuvenate Native Languages. I encourage you to research them, to write grants for a million dollars to fund an immersion school or for $150 to bring together two Elders in front of a microphone to talk about how to make acorn soup. I have created a small, non-comprehensive list below to help get you started.

Help your people continue to be Tribal members and not just descendants of Tribal members.

Just my two dentalias' worth.


Administration for Native Americans

Indigenous Language Institute

Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival

American Indian Language Development Institute

Northwest Indian Language Institute

Endangered Languages Fund

Indigenous Languages and Technology

Preserving Native American Languages

Native Languages of the Americas

Native Language Revitalization Initiative

Online Resources for Endangered Languages

André Cramblit is a Karuk Tribal Member from the Klamath and Salmon rivers in northwest California and the Operations Director of the Northern California Indian Development Council. He lives with his wife Wendy and son Kyle in Arcata, California.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page




turbojesus's picture
Well it is one thing to glorify it. Another thing to learn it at old age. It wasn't a good thing to have blood, speak, and look native americans when my parents, grandparents, great grandparents were living. There's no guarantee that they can't make it a bad thing again. I remember watching on CNN awhile ago where they were trying to display native americans as not a real group and abusing the system through the ICWA. Even Revenant didn't give a good impression of native americans, they were displayed as having animal characteristics, violent, imperious, unattractive, the main character made the language sound effeminate, lots of derogatory terms were thrown around by authority figures at them. Plus does the language have a sense of itself. I remember the word for black snake isn't black and snake in the language but instead means one who moves continuously. What exactly am I memorizing in the language. Maybe someone should actually try to formalize these languages. I was in one of these language immersion programs as a child. I have no ability to do the language now because nobody around me or any elementary, middle, high school and university have any concern about doing it. The only way I would been able to actually learn the language would have been to see and hear throughout my lifetime in education.