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"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men."

Col 3:23

Preservation in Native Language Communities

In every Native nation and Native language community there are stories about individuals who merit the titles of prophets, geniuses, eccentrics and leaders ahead of their time. Someplace in the spectrum of decline of each language, often before it became noticeable, there were people who took it upon themselves to be the advocates, teachers, recorders and resources of their heritage languages. They were the soothsayers of their day.

Today, the ingenuity, tact and diligence they displayed is affectionately admired by their contemporary counterparts. It can be said that within every Native nation and language community, there are those individuals, often unable themselves to fully explain their motivation, who are called to serve in the preservation of their language. They come from all walks of life with one thing in common: their love and commitment to keeping their heritage language viable. Today’s practitioners of heritage language revitalization carry on a longstanding Native tradition.

Twenty years ago, disenchanted with the reluctance – or, in many cases, the refusal – of public school systems, especially on Indian reservations, to include tribal languages in the curriculums of the day, many individuals in Indigenous communities began to seek out alternative pathways to maintaining their languages. Despite the profusion of bilingual and Indian education-based funded programming, the number of Native children speaking their languages, continued to decline in almost every Native nation.

It is said the residual effect of their parents’ days at boarding and reservation day schools, along with the increasing emphasis on formal education as the mainspring to urbanization of America, had successfully deemed Native languages as archaic vestiges of the past for Native children. Maintaining and speaking tribal languages simply were not part of the modernization of Native America, but few bothered to investigate the ramifications of the loss on the quintessential world of Native people.

Unfortunately, the prophecy over the past twenty years by the early day language retention advocates about the eventual demise of Native languages is now being realized. Among numerous Native nations, the harsh reality is that no one, or only a mere number, still speaks the heritage language.

Twenty-five years ago, in New Zealand, the Maori People, instituted a master plan of language revitalization, which today finds them well established in a successful rejuvenation program fully enhanced with technology of the day, long-term education formats entirely in the Maori language and an enlivened society.

Another excellent example of Indigenous language revival exists among the Hawaiian People, with the well established language programming of Punana Leo Immersion Programs. Today, with an increasing number of children schooled exclusively in the Hawaiian Language it is possible to obtain post-secondary degrees in the language at the University of Hawaii. Twenty years ago, there were few Native language programs that were devoted exclusively to Native language learning environments.

The Akwesasne Freedom School, now in its third decade of teaching the Mohawk Language and well ahead of its time, is one of the foremost examples of Native language programming. In l987, the Piegan Institute was founded on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana for the sole purpose of researching, promoting, and preserving the Blackfoot Language. Through its initial work in the field, it became widely known in Native language communities across the country and remains a classic example of community-based programming in a Native language.

In l994, Institute staff designed the Nizipuhwahsin School, a full tribal language immersion program, which became a model emulated on numerous reservations. The K-8 private school program is entering its tenth year of operation. It is difficult to tally how many community language programs exist throughout the country. They are, for the most part, unheralded and ignored, struggling to survive against a mosaic of obstacles.

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