Sorry for Native Boarding Schools? Fund Indigenous Language Revitalization.

Connor Yiamkis, a language educator and member of the Pit River tribe, is working to revitalize the Pit River language which the American government and churches tried to strip from his people during the Indian boarding school era. Citing research that language revitalization is centrally important to cultural expression, suicide prevention, and relationships with people and the land, Yiamkis argues that the American government should significantly increase funding for language revitalization.

For those of us in Native communities, the lingering scars of boarding schools, including the disruption of our languages, remain deep and painful. Many of us are working diligently to recover what was stripped from us. Unfortunately our healing work, especially in language revitalization, often doesn’t receive the kind of support that’s needed and deserved, especially from the same governments and churches who ran the boarding schools.  

Today, across what is currently the U.S., many people in Indigenous communities are becoming more aware of the need to learn and speak their languages, and they are actively working to acquire the knowledge and expertise to do so. 

For Indigenous peoples, the urgent need to create more speakers for our languages is a daily reality. That’s because many of the Indigenous languages in what is currently the United States have become endangered through the course of colonization, genocide, and cultural genocide. 

“Language revitalization” is a field that has grown significantly  in the past 20 years. According to Leanne Hinton, a prominent proponent of the field, it is “commonly understood as giving new life and vigor to a language that has been decreasing in use (or has ceased to be used altogether)”. As understanding of the importance of language revitalization has increased, several universities have opened courses and/or programs relating to the subject.

That’s important because, according to an article from High Country News, “of the 115 Indigenous languages spoken in the U.S. today, two are healthy, 34 are in danger, and 79 will go extinct within a generation without serious intervention. In other words, 99 percent of the Native American languages spoken today are in danger.” In Shasta County endangered Indigeous languages include Wintu, Pit River, Hat Creek, and Yana.

They’re in danger as a result of America’s residential boarding schools. Up until the late 1970s, boarding schools in the U.S. forced Native children from their homes into schools designed to steal their culture, including their language, away from them. Native children were punished if they spoke their Native language in these schools and were forced to only speak English. 

Even after these schools closed, the attempts at erasing Native languages have lasted well into modern times, deeply affecting the speech communities of these languages. But now many communities, including my own, are figuring out strategies to revitalize their language.

What is the point? Why is it necessary? There are several important reasons why a community would want to bring its own language back. One is that language and culture are inherently connected. Each language has a certain way of explaining the world around it. This means that the language someone speaks has an impact on how they see the world. This is why language revitalizationists must be careful to include the cultural context when designing  learning curriculum for Indigenous languages. 

In a study on Indigenizing language revitalization for the Kwak’wala language from Western Canada, the authors noted “Indigenous languages are often taught as translations of English, which leaves out the rich worldview and knowledge embedded in those languages and ignores the internal makeup of the words, its ‘building blocks.’” 

The study gave examples which included words such as ‘ḵ̓wa̱la’yu’ – a term of endearment used to address a loved child, which has a literal meaning of ‘my reason for living’. Another word, “hayasa̱kola” is often taught to mean ‘married couple,’ but the literal translation can be understood as ‘breathing together as one’”. In these words, we can see the meaning of certain relationships expressed with very descriptive terminology that would be lost if people only spoke English. 

This language expression is also central to the cultural understanding and connection between Indigenous communities and their lands. For example, in the Pit River language, words describing direction can come from the direction of the wind, whether you are traveling towards a landmark such as Glass Mountain, or whether you are traveling ‘upriver’ or ‘downriver’. 

Connor Yiamkis.

Another important benefit of language revitalization is that being able to speak one’s own ancestral language has been shown by scholarly studies to have huge health benefits to communities, including a significant reduction in suicide risk. A 2007 study of Indigenous communities in British Columbia found that reductions in health risks are linked to a greater sense of belonging and identity when cultural language is present. That’s because language creates both a sense of connection to the past and to those around you in the present as we share the experience of breathing life back into our ancestral languages and our worldviews.

Language revitalization is complicated by the lack of speaking and listening opportunities. Unlike those learning more broadly known languages in high school classes, many Native language speakers don’t have a place to practice speaking after learning some of the basics. There certainly isn’t a place in Shasta County where speakers of Pit River can go to immerse ourselves in the language. Speaking a language is a skill, and, just like any other skill unless you have a way to use it, you lose it over time. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be Native language classes in high schools (quite the opposite), only that the problem is certainly more complex.

But having a way to speak the language in the home has shown to be a promising way to create new speakers of a language. Speaking in the home means that people can use the language every day with their family or with themselves, regardless whether the community around them is speaking their language. Eventually, when enough people or families are speaking the language in their homes, they can then start to use it together at community and cultural events, thus (re)starting a speech community. 

This method has shown promising results with several communities, including those speaking the Lushootseed language. Lushootseed speakers have increased from 10 known speakers in 2014 to at least 230 speakers in 2020, primarily by using language in the home. The Mitsqanaqan and Nu wee ya’ languages have also adopted this method. We are also working to recreate this process with the Pit River language, because creating a community of speakers is the method that will create the longest lasting effects across multiple generations.

Given the vital nature of language revitalization to Native communities, one might think that there would be plenty of language program funding available for tribes or other entities, such as tribal nonprofits. But while the slow growth in language revitalization means more grants than in the past, there is still not nearly enough funding to sustain the hundreds of tribes and other entities trying to do this pivotal work. The small number of grants available from organizations such as Administration for Native Americans are often dwarfed by the number of diverse language communities who need support. With hundreds of Indigenous languages across the country, many people are left without funding. 

Some tribes have found ways to fund their own language programs, but such attempts are largely dependent on tribal income, and on the priorities set by their governing bodies.

For those communities whose tribes don’t fund language programs, it’s often because other necessities for daily living including health services, housing, roads, garbage, and business ventures have taken priority. But while language is not necessary for daily living in the same way as roads, housing and garbage are, it is of course pivotal to community health. Without sufficient funding, would-be teachers and linguists must work other jobs, taking away valuable time and energy that could be put towards translating and creating language learning materials. And with  inconsistent work, the language revitalization process can stagnate, and a speech community won’t be formed. That’s why many tribes, and others who may be doing grassroots language revitalization, need outside funding to create a consistent language program where learning, teaching, and using the language is the sole job of the staff. 

As the gruesome history of the boarding schools increasingly becomes a visible public concern, funding of language revitalization should be recognized as one important means of beginning to repair the damage. Residential boarding schools were a consistent and heavily funded government program dedicated to removing Native language and culture from our people. But until now, the same federal government that spent over $2.81 billion on the boarding schools that removed our language and culture from our children has only put approximately $180 million towards revitalizing those Indigenous languages. If America is ready to reverse the toxic effects of its boarding schools, putting the same consistent and significant funding behind language and cultural revitalization as was put towards their destruction would be a strong first step.

Connor Yiamkis has an MA in Language Teaching Studies and works as a curriculum developer and language teacher for the Indigenous Language Network (ILN).

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