Native Language Schools Are Taking Back Education

April 20th, 2018 by For more than 150 years, the Wôpanâak language was silent. With no fluent speakers alive, the language of the Mashpee Wampanoag people existed only in historical documents. It was by all measures extinct. But a recently established language school on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation in Massachusetts is working to bring back the language. The threat of extinction that faces the Wôpanâak language is not uncommon for indigenous languages in the United States. Calculated federal policy, not happenstance, led to the destruction of Native American languages such as Wôpanâak. But today, Native language schools are working to change that by revitalizing languages that have been threatened with extinction. In the 19th century, federal policy shifted from a policy of extermination and displacement to assimilation. The passage of the Civilization Fund Act in 1819 allocated federal funds directly to education for the purpose of assimilation, and that led to the formation of many government-run boarding schools. Boarding schools were not meant to educate, but to assimilate. Tribal communities continue to be haunted by this history. As of April, UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Endangered Languages listed 191 Native American languages as “in danger” in the United States. Of these, some languages are vulnerable—meaning that children speak the language, but only in certain contexts—to critically endangered—meaning the youngest generation of speakers are elderly. Today, the education system in the United States fails Native American students. Native students have the lowest high school graduation rate of any racial group nationally, according to the 2017 Condition of Education Report. And a 2010 report shows that in the 12 states with the highest Native American population, less than 50 percent of Native students graduate from high school per year. By founding schools that teach in Native languages and center tribal history and beliefs, tribal language schools are taking education back into their own hands. Read more: YES! Magazine

Hope for the Future: Alaskan Community Works to Revive Native Languages

March 14th, 2018 by Terri Burr hopped in her car, turning on the wipers to sweep the rain from her windshield. She began to drive and talk, barely looking down at the road she takes each morning to meet with her language mentor, John Reese, the 95-year-old, last fluent speaker of the native Alaskan language Shm’algyack in Ketchikan. Burr stepped out of her car and into a creaking elevator in a fading teal apartment building. She pressed the button for the 11th floor where Reese lives alone in what he and his brother nicknamed the Eagle’s Nest, a nod to their family’s clan. The two have an agreement that before Burr enters the apartment, she calls out to Reese to let him know she has arrived. “Nda wila waan,” said Burr. (How are you doing?) “Aam. 'Kam shta malshgn,” said Reese. (Good, come in and tell a joke.) Burr, a heritage-language facilitator for the Ketchikan Indian Community (KIC), has spent her mornings with Reese for the past eight years. She no longer hyperventilates on her way to these meetings–Reese has always been a strict teacher, and she long struggled with his high expectations–but she remembers her struggle during the first few years. “The fear made me learn,” she said. “I had to prove myself every single day.” Burr was determined to learn the native language, not only because of the burden she felt, but because of the panic she noticed in the elders. “I could see the fierceness in his eyes,” Burr said of Reese. “He didn’t worry about how much time he had until he started working on the language. Then he developed a fear of how much time he had left.” In September of 2008, when most of the fluent elders were in their 80s and 90s, KIC made it a top priority to save the community’s three languages: Shm’algyack, Xaad Kil, and ‘Lingit. They created a mentor-apprentice program, partnering fluent speakers with language learners. As of today, Ketchikan has one fluent speaker of Shm’algyack, Reese, two speakers of Xaad Kil, and one fluent speaker of ‘Lingit. “If we don’t keep our language alive, then our culture dies,” said Joe Thomas, a fluent ‘Lingit speaker who lives in Saxman, a town next to Ketchikan. “Our culture, our language, the things that we do, the things that keep us going, die. We will be known statistically as a race that died, a culture that died. We’re already known as a culture that is dying.” Read more: Pulitzer Center