I believe Cherokee is one of the world’s most beautiful languages spoken today, very gentle and melodic. It is like hearing the sounds of the waves of a deep blue lake washing over the shore. When I was a little boy everyone I knew spoke Cherokee. When we went to the store or church or visiting neighbors, someone would always look at me and smile and say, “Siyo, tohitsu?” Hello, how are you? I would smile back and say, “Osda, nihina?” I’m well. And how about you?
America’s Native languages are in trouble. Of the over 200 Native American languages spoken today, less than 20 are spoken by their tribal children. In order for a language to thrive, it must reinvent itself in a way that embraces a changing world, creating words that capture changes and incorporate them into the culture.
Tribal languages and customs in the United States and Canada faced near extinction for many reasons but in particular because of government-encouraged forced assimilation policies. Some of these policies remained active until the late 1960’s into the early 1970’s. One policy was particularly harsh…and effective…at assimilating the most vulnerable of the Native people, the children.
In the last part of the 1800’s and through the 1950’s, policies enacted for the “benefit” of America’s tribal people, strongly encouraged and often forced tribal children to attend government-run boarding schools, sometimes hundreds of miles from their tribes and families. My grandmother and mother were sent to such boarding schools. At these schools, speaking Native languages was forbidden. Anyone caught speaking his or her tribal language or practicing Native customs met with cruel punishments.
When many of these children were able to return to their tribes, they either could no longer speak their tribal languages or were ashamed to do so. Additionally, the parents received the message loud and clear. In order for their children to survive in a “civilized” world they must learn to speak English and forget their tribal languages and customs. These parents had been told over and over again their language and customs were only fragments of a dying people and had to be abandoned if their tribe, through their children and “civilization”, was to survive at all.
Native America’s tribal languages are treasures and the old ones who have maintained the gift of their tribal language and customs in spite of the hardships of doing so are treasures as well. These languages and people are not fragments of “backward” civilizations, but vestments of cultures thousands of years old, steeped in ancient thought that cannot be replaced. If you are a tribal person learn your tribal language to the best of your ability. If you speak your tribal language, teach someone else to speak. The two greatest gifts we can receive from our elders and pass on to the next generation are identity and belonging. There is no more powerful way to do that than through culture and language.