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Reclaiming the Gift
Indigenous Youth Counter-Narratives on Native Language Loss and Revitalization
In the beginning . . . Elder Brother and Younger Brother were instructed through visions by the breath-giver to teach . . . the newly created people [how] to live. All the instructions were in the native language. The people lived happily for many years. . . . Something bad happened and there was a battle among the peaceful people. The head chief then commanded that there would be many languages. . . . The people migrated and divided into different language groups.
These reflections by Hualapai educator Lucille Jackson Watahomigie eloquently capture the mutually constitutive relationship between language and identity. "It is said that when the languages were created, language identified the people—who we are, where we came from, and where we are going," Watahomigie adds (1998, 6). This sentiment is widely shared among Native speakers. "My language, to me, . . . that's what makes me unique, that's what makes me Navajo, that's what makes me who I am," Navajo artist and educator Fred Bia maintains (McCarty 2002, 179). "When people spoke Dakota," William Harjo Lonefight states, "they understood where they belonged in relation to other people, to the natural world, and to the spiritual world" (Ambler 2004, 8). Reflecting on the resources within his Native Cheyenne, Richard Littlebear notes that "embedded in this language are the lessons that guide our daily lives. We cannot leave behind the essence of our being" (2004, 20). Yet this most ancient of gifts is in peril of vanishing forever, as fewer and [End Page 28] fewer young people are socialized through the ancestral language each generation.
Linguists estimate that prior to European contact, some 300 to 500 Native languages were spoken by the peoples indigenous to what is now the United States and Canada (Krauss 1998; McCarty and Watahomigie 2003, 84–86; Zepeda and Hill 1992). More than 200 of those languages remain—testimony to the resistance and resilience of their speakers—but only 34 are still being naturally acquired as a first language by children (Krauss 1998). Put another way, fully 84 percent of all Indigenous languages in the United States and Canada have no new speakers to pass them on.1 Even those languages with a substantial number of child speakers are slipping away, as the residue of a genocidal and linguicidal past and the modern influences of English media, technology, and schooling take their toll.2
When even a single language falls silent, the world loses an irredeemable repository of human knowledge. The great linguist and language advocate Kenneth Hale, who spoke some seventy-five languages himself, put it this way: "Every language lost is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre" (Ambler 2004, 9).3 To speakers, the loss is more intimate, personal, and irretrievable. "If a child learns only English, you have lost your child," a Navajo elder states (McCarty 2002, 181; McCarty and Zepeda 1999, 207). "It is language that carries the nature and character of who we are and how we relate with one another . . . and to all things we experience in life," a Pueblo leader relates; "[o]nce we've lost that, we have lost everything" (Suina 2004, 300). Pecos and Blum-Martinez add that in many Native communities, the tribal language remains "the only viable means for sacred communication" (2001, 75).4
In the epigraph that begins this article, Watahomigie refers to the Native language as a gift. "When you are given a gift—especially one that is alive—it must be cherished, nurtured, and treated with respect to honor the giver" (Watahomigie 1998, 5). Similar metaphors can be found in tribal language policies: "The Yaqui language is a gift from Itom Achai, the Creator of our people," the Yaqui Tribal Language Policy begins, "and, therefore, shall be treated with respect" (Zepeda 1990, 250). When such a gift...