Congress asked to fund language 'survival schools'
Sitting Bull once famously protested the harsh assimilation campaign to turn American Indian "savages" into Christian farmers and tradesmen.
"It is not necessary that eagles should be crows," said the Hunkpapa Lakota leader from the Standing Rock Reservation.
For decades, off-reservation boarding schools served as the government's blunt instrument to force American Indian children to abandon their native languages and customs.
Official policy was reversed in 1990 when Congress declared that the law of the land was to promote and preserve native languages.
More than a decade later, however, the Native American Languages Act has had little, if any, measurable effect in saving endangered languages. The law's lofty rhetoric hasn't been buttressed with adequate funding, critics have said.
Similarly, a growing movement to revive native languages in the United States and abroad can point to few successes -- the world's approximately 6,800 languages continue to die at the rate of 10 a year, according to a United Nations estimate.
But a proposal before Congress would fund a handful of "survival schools," where American Indian students would be immersed in studies of their native languages.
Amendments to the Native American Languages Act also would establish "language nests," programs for families of children under 7 aimed at reestablishing native languages and culture as part of daily life.
As always, however, the problem will be finding the money -- a steep challenge as federal deficits pile up.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, supports the amendments.
"This is part of the cultural heritage," Conrad said. "There are some very practical reasons to keep it alive," he added, noting military use of native language speakers including the Navajo, whose conversations were unbreakable codes to the enemy.
"The pool of money from which they will be drawn is shrinking," Conrad said of funding for the survival schools. "It is going to be a very difficult think to find the money in the competition for scarce resources."
A likely outcome: the survival school and language nest demonstration projects will win authorization, if not funding, Conrad said.
Lack of money alone doesn't account for the slow progress in reversing the loss of native languages. Problems include the lack of a broad, organized response and techniques of proven effectiveness, according to linguists.
Although working with endangered languages has become a higher priority among linguists in recent years, there is no field that might be called "conservation linguistics."
Still, several major foundations are supporting language preservation work, including the Volkswagen Foundation and the Ford Foundation.
One of the more quixotic efforts is an initiative called The Rosetta Project, named after the Rosetta Stone that helped decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, sponsored by the Long Now Foundation.
The collaborative project, drawing on contributions from thousands of linguists and native speakers, is creating an online database and physical archive of 1,000 of the more than 6,000 world languages.
So far, the Rosetta Project contains no entries for Mandan, Hidatsa or Arikara, the languages of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota's Fort Berthold Reservation.
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Against this growing movement to save endangered languages, a few contrarians have argued that some languages and cultures inevitably die, and their loss shouldn't be mourned.
One of those voices is John J. Miller, a journalist who wrote a commentary last year in The Wall Street Journal challenging the orthodoxy that language diversity should be a priority of bodies like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known as UNESCO.
A UNESCO report said linguistic diversity is a resource, not an obstacle to progress, as some, including Miller, have claimed.
"Yet the most important reason some languages are disappearing is precisely that their native speakers don't regard them as quite so precious," Miller wrote. "They view linguistic adaptation -- especially for their kids -- as a key to getting ahead. This is understandable when about half the world's population speaks one of only 10 languages and when speaking English in particular is a profitable skill."
But linguists, and increasingly governments, maintain that languages are intellectual storehouses that deserve to be preserved.
Michael Krauss, a linguist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and founder of the Alaska Native Language Center, said there is a simple answer to those who argue that native languages are obsolete or hold their speakers back: bilingualism.
"This is our humanity," Krauss said. "If everybody spoke English, it would be like we finally managed to pave the earth with nothing but cows and wheat."
In the search for solutions, immersion schools in Alaska, Hawaii and Montana helped spawn a national movement, and are proposed as models in the legislation before Congress.
Although immersion programs show promise, there really is no single model for a language preservation program, said Inée Yang Slaughter, executive director of the Indigenous Languages Institute in Santa Fe, N.M. That's because each tribe's situation is different.
Several California tribes have had good results with master-apprentice programs, where fluent elders take young protégés and work with them individually.
Many tribes, including the Hidatsa, have used quasi-immersion language classes, where English sometimes is spoken.
Other tribes that lack fluent speakers, including the Arikara, are making extensive use of technology, including multimedia lessons with recordings of fluent speakers.
"There's nothing that would replace a human speaker," Slaughter said. "Technology is only a tool. "It's a very, very effective tool to maximize the resources."
Merely teaching the language alone tends to be dry and ineffective, many educators agree. Language instruction should be enriched with culture and traditions, she said.
"It's a good place to start," Slaughter said of native language instruction, "but ultimately the communities need to become Indian before we can start teaching the language."
At the same time, language and culture must be taught in a way that is relevant to young people today.
In Santa Fe, the Indigenous Language Institute has sponsored summer youth language fairs for the past five years.
Participants dance, sing songs, recite poetry, put on skits, even tell jokes -- so long as the performance involves use of native language.
The first year, 12 children took part, but participation has grown every year. Now several hundred participate, and organizers are considering making it a national event.
The festival has drawn large crowds and helped to instill enthusiasm among the community at large. "It had a lot of ripple effects we hadn't really intended," Slaughter said.
"Motivating young people is crucial," she said. "Our philosophy with young people is make it cool, make it now, make it fun."
Individual tribes could hold their own language and culture fairs to motivate learning. "Even if you have only one elderly speaker, any community can do this," Slaughter said.