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 With no fluent speakers alive, the language of the Mashpee Wampanoag people existed only in historical documents.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.
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