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Preserving Native America’s vanishing languages

Native American Heritage Month (November) is when we reflect on the heritage of the first people in the Americas and honor their traditions and ancestors. North America before the time of contact with Europeans five hundred years ago was a mosaic of extraordinary human diversity. Hundreds of tribes had their own cultures, political systems, art...

Native American Heritage Month (November) is when we reflect on the heritage of the first people in the Americas and honor their traditions and ancestors.

North America before the time of contact with Europeans five hundred years ago was a mosaic of extraordinary human diversity. Hundreds of tribes had their own cultures, political systems, art forms, spiritual beliefs–and languages.


Tribal policeman Jim Macy dances to keep his traditions alive, Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Oregon (undated).

NGS stock photo by David Boyer

By the late 19th Century all that had changed. Most tribes had been restricted to reservations. Many of their children were taken to boarding schools where they were required to speak only in English as part of a program to assimilate Native Americans into the white culture. Native American languages were mainly dead or dying.

By the late 20th Century, more than half the Native Americans in the U.S. were living in urban areas, where English was their everyday and home language. The few remaining Native American languages still in use were increasingly spoken only by the elders.

But there has been a resilience among the first people of North America in the 21st Century, and many of them have been determined to hang on to their heritage. Others are looking for ways to revitalize traditional cultures, spiritual values–and languages.


Native North American holding an artifact up toward the sky.

NGS stock photo by Chris Johns

One organization that has been established to record the disappearing languages around the world, including those of North America–and perhaps to help revitalize those that are on the brink of extinction–is the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.

Living Tongues logo.jpg

Living Tongues has linked up with the National Geographic Society to form the Enduring Voices Project, which strives to preserve endangered languages by identifying language hotspots–the places with the most unique, poorly understood, or threatened indigenous languages–and documenting the languages and cultures within them.

Under the Enduring Voices Project, linguists journey to meet with last speakers, listen to their stories, and document their languages with film, pictures, and audio to help communities preserve their knowledge of species, landscapes, and traditions before they vanish, according to the project’s Web site.


“In addition, the Enduring Voices Project, where invited, will assist indigenous communities in their efforts to revitalize and maintain their threatened languages. By using appropriate written materials, video, still photography, audio recorders, and computers with language software, as well as access through the Internet where possible, the Enduring Voices Project will help empower communities to preserve ancient traditions with modern technology,” the Web site adds.

I spoke to Dr. Greg Anderson, director of Living Tongues, about the disappearing languages of the U.S. and what’s been done to document, if not save them.

Why should we care about preserving languages?

Whether for heritage or scientific reasons, languages need to be recorded.

Every language is useful as a means to identify a group. It codifies the history and world view of a people. It’s clear that it’s important to many people that they have their language that identifies them uniquely as a group.

Most native communities in the U.S. want to have as good and accurate record of their language as possible, in a format to be enjoyed by as many people as possible. There is great interest in documenting this heritage.

Documenting a disappearing language is so important, but it’s possible only to really begin to appreciate all the subtleties and complexities of language if you have some speakers left to give you the dynamics and social context. If a language goes then it can’t find new life without recorded materials.

“Every language furthers and refines our understanding of cognition, communications systems, the nature of the mind and the different ways people categorize our collective human experience.”

From a scientific perspective it is also imperative to document languages while they are still alive. Languages are markers of identity and group cohesion. Linguists will tell you that every language furthers and refines our understanding of cognition, communications systems, the nature of the mind and the different ways people categorize our collective human experience.

For scientists, who knows what benefits there will be down the line that we don’t even know about now yet. Certainly there will be uses for the data. But you can be sure it won’t be used if it’s not documented.

Tell us about the language hotspots in North America

In the Enduring Voices project, we focus on the situation of languages in hotspots. Several hotspots have been identified in North America, most notably in Oklahoma. It is where we find a concentration of unique languages that are vanishing. These are the priority areas for future work in language documentation.

The idea is to create areas where efforts need to be concentrated, where the number and different types of languages have consequences that are greater collectively for humanity.


Source for Language Hotspots map: Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages

Each language is of course equally valued, but we have a finite number of people, dollars, and time to do this work, so we need to maximize our efforts and resources.

In North America there are 150-170 languages that still have at least one speaker. Many of these languages have fewer than a hundred speakers. There are very few languages that have decent prospects of surviving without significant effort on the part of their communities to continue to find a use for them.

Oregon was probably the most diverse region of languages in the U.S. California might have the claim, but it is much larger, so the award for density of linguistic diversity goes to Oregon.

“At the time Lewis and Clark arrived in what’s now Oregon 200 years ago there were 14 language families, more than in all of Europe combined.”

At the time Lewis and Clark arrived in what’s now Oregon 200 years ago there were 14 language families, more than in all of Europe combined. Today only five families of languages exist, and most of them have only a handful of speakers.

There is only one language family that has more than a hundred or two hundred speakers, and that’s Northern Paiute, in southeastern Oregon, where the elders can still speak it when they get together. For most of the rest of the people there the everyday language is English.

The vast majority of the remaining languages in Oregon are known only by very few elders. The language diversity of that region has fallen off a cliff.


A Klamath Indian in Oregon  putting on his regalia for a restoration celebration. (Undated)

NGS stock photo by David McLain

There has been some documentation of these languages, but mostly just as text, and often a hundred years old. The complexity of the setting of these texts, and the sounds of the languages have often been lost.

With the loss of the languages, all kinds of wonderful things that the speakers did with their languages have also vanished, for example, some of the greatest works of oral literature ever produced–the multilingual performances with different characters speaking different languages that was found in the Pacific Northwest.

The highly elaborate dances that accompanied the oral tradition are frequently also gone.

Large amounts of local knowledge about fauna and flora, ecosystem management, local place names, spiritual values, and so on are all submerged, altered or gone because the original languages that expressed these concepts are gone or no longer well understood.

 How is this situation being addressed?


Two directions. We have tried to do a little through the Enduring Voices program, which has been quite effective at raising public awareness about the issue of language endangement. A longer-term arrangement is through Living Tongues, where we plan and execute larger scale projects. These are the main ways we engage the communities and help them to document and revitalize their languages.

Through Enduring Voices, we have been helping the Winnemem Wintu, one of the indigenous peoples of north central California. We have given them a technology kit and are providing training to help them compile video and audio recordings, with the purpose of producing language revitalization materials for their language.

Winnemem Wintu representatives are going to take part in an Enduring Voices workshop in Santa Fe next April. They will be joined by representatives of the Sac and Fox tribes, who are also interested in maintaining their Sauk language.

Our workshop takes people step by step through the raw data they collect and shows them how to produce a book or audio or some other product they can use to document their language and/or to teach others to speak it.


Otoe Indians in Oklahoma wearing traditional clothing stand in front of a tipi. (Undated)

NGS stock photo by B. Anthony Stewart

There is a long process between raw data and usable material. But the communities themselves must want to collect the data and do something with it. This is really the only way that languages will survive into the future, if activists in the communities are interested in maintaining their language.

How communities use their language is up to them. It can be informal, such as by producing a reader, or formal, such as a course taught in schools. Languages can be revitalized by finding new users and creating new uses for them.

Some communities outsource this work to us. We have been working with the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians in Oregon and helping them build a talking dictionary. It now has many thousands of words. Only the tribe has access to it. It is knowledge they want to keep to themselves, which is their right.


Children wear headdresses and beaded buckskin to perform dance, Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Oregon, 1969.

NGS stock photo by Bates Littlehales

Once a language is dead it is pretty hard to imagine how it could be brought back. When you are down to only a few speakers you can find ways to build speaker communities, such as happened successfully in Hawaii, where they have created new speakers.

Language nests have been built in other native American communities with some success. The Cherokee in Oklahoma have shown great success in generating new speakers with their immersion school.


Ceremonial dancer Ron Moses, an American Indian of Cherokee, Creek, and Pawnee descent, wears ceremonial dress including paint and feathers while attending th e Cherokee National Holiday Powwow.(Undated)

NGS stock photo by Maggie Steber

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, a casino-funded tribe, has resources and the will to support language regeneration programs, and have successfully generated new speakers of Chinuk Wawa, the lingua franca of many Oregon reservations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This shows that it is possible to reclaim languages.

If you have five speakers of a language and you start immersion schools you can produce 25 speakers. Then you can multiply those again. The Cherokee can be thinking of thousands and tens of thousands of speakers of their language on this basis ultimately. It is a model that has worked.

Children are sponges and absorb languages easily. If they are placed in a language immersion situation where everyone is speaking the language they will become fluent.

Preserving languages should be of interest to everyone, right?

Enduring Voices is promoting the key hotspots issue in your backyard. Sure there are vanishing languages around the globe, but your neighbors might be speakers of one of them. Most people appreciate that diversity is good. You wouldn’t want to be allowed to eat only one kind of ice cream flavor or only one type of food always and forever with no options. 

“The loss of any language is a loss for us all. We lose part of the human genius, and with the disappearance of a language also goes a lot of spiritual concepts, art, and so on.”

The loss of any language is a loss for us all. We lose part of the human genius, and with the disappearance of a language also goes a lot of spiritual concepts, art, and so on.

There is also the concept that you don’t have to be tied to one language, or worse, be forced to learn one over another. You don’t have to give up one language for another. People are capable of learning and appreciating more than one language. Multilingualism is the norm in many parts of the world. 

How do you find languages to rescue?

We wait for people to come to us. Native American communities tend to be cautious with outsiders. They are also perfectly capable of finding the information through the media and public information sources, and through word of mouth, if they want to do something about preserving their language.

We will work with any North American community, no matter what the size or the state of their language (unless it has no speakers and was never recorded of course), to see what kinds of solutions might be possible.

If there is a will to maintain the language, we seek to find the way to make it happen. Interested community activists are welcome to contact Enduring Voices or Living Tongues to start the discussion.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn