Language and identity: the stories behind the world’s endangered languages

As Europeans began to colonize North America, Native Americans were placed in reservation boarding schools, where students were taught English and subjected to forced cultural assimilation.

This forced assimilation took a toll on linguistic diversity on the continent and as a result, North American indigenous languages have been on the decline since 1790.

For human biology sophomore Alexa Oldman, language revitalization is critical to keeping indigenous North American languages and identity alive.

“It’s important for not only me but all other Native Americans to revitalize the language, because that is a part of who we are,” Oldman said. “Our ancestors fought to keep the traditions alive and try to speak the language, even though they were reprimanded for it.” 

Since the age of two, Oldman has participated in cultural events and learned traditional Native American dances. 

She said she believes language preservation efforts are crucial given the centuries of struggle her ancestors endured in order to keep their culture and language alive under colonization.

Oldman has ties to two tribes: Northern Arapaho in Wyoming, and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa in Petoskey, Michigan. 

Her grandmother was among those who were placed in English boarding schools, resulting in language loss.

“My grandma had attended a boarding school, and her mom and dad were both fluent speakers in Anishinaabemowin,” Oldman said. “Due to having to go to the boarding schools, my grandma then lost how to speak their own language.” 

Despite her grandmother losing her family’s native tongue, Oldman said her family has managed to pass Native American customs down the line. 

“I had attended ceremonies — Native ceremonies — when I was younger as well, and up until now,” Oldman said. “Even my mom herself grew up the same way too. So, that’s why she taught me my cultural ways. … There’s Seven Grandfather Teachings that we learned about when we were younger, and that we learn to live by and follow throughout our life. And then we learn about the four different directions. And we practice Sun Dance, which comes from my Northern Arapaho tribe out in Wyoming, which is only specific to them.”

These teachings continued to influence and shape Oldman as a young adult. 

“The Seven Grandfather Teachings, and a few that would be respect, truth, and honesty,” Oldman said. “And because we live by that, then it teaches you to respect people, respect your peers. Be truthful and be honest in certain situations.”

Anishinaabemowin’s status, according to the Endangered Language Project, or ELP is threatened, with about 1,500 native speakers left.

Read more: State News

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