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Native American Heritage Languages

Christine P. Sims, University of New Mexico

In a recent resolution prepared by the North Slope Borough School District in Alaska, a critical concern about indigenous heritage language survival is expressed in light of recent U.S. federal mandates to implement the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001:

As American people embark on the journey to implement the 'No Child Left Behind Act,' the First Peoples of our nation are forced to face, yet again, another challenge to the survival of our languages and our cultures. As indigenous peoples, the struggle to maintain the vitality of our languages and our cultures against the powerful mainstream odds of assimilation becomes a critical issue. Our very identity, our cultures, our worldview, the expression of who we are as Native people hangs in the balance. (North Slope Borough School District Resolution No. 2003-03)

In yet another state, a recent article published in an Arizona newspaper reports that 28 teaching assistants will be removed from the Tucson Unified School District's Title I schools, including native Yaqui speakers who provide instruction in their ancestral Yoeme language (Duarte 2002). The move comes as a result of new paraprofessional certification requirements contained within the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

What do recent developments such as these bode for the survival of America's HLs in general and Native American languages in particular? Such questions are beginning to emerge and recent developments such as those just mentioned are cause for concern in light of the rapid erosion of Native American languages taking place today. As well, these questions are significant to the growing efforts being initiated by various Native American tribes to stem the loss of their native languages (Cantoni 1996; Hale and Hinton 2001). Research regarding these efforts and how they impact language transmission processes has yet to be fully examined and studied. This brief paper suggests several broad areas of research that may be useful to researchers and practitioners as well as Native American educators, tribal leaders, and Native American communities.

Policy Implications for Native American Languages

Implementation of national policies and local school programs driven by ideologies of linguistic uniformity can unwittingly result in discouraging circumstances for many Native American youngsters attempting to learn their native languages. Simply put, this can mean having to choose between learning one's Native HL or struggling to maintain parity with monolingual English speaking peers based solely on academic assessments of English. Such choices have been and continue to be subtly forced upon fragile HLs as the emphasis on English literacy and English-based assessments increases at earlier age levels each year (Wong Fillmore 1991a, 1991b). Research that investigates policy implications for the long-term survival of Native American languages is critically needed to better inform not only the research community, but just as importantly those who play key roles in advocating, developing and administering education programs for Native children. Some possible research questions are:

1. What barriers and challenges do federal and school policies pose for tribes wishing to pursue programs of Native language instruction in school settings?

2. What are the internal boundaries that institutions place on Native language teaching and how are these influenced by factors such as: non-Native teacher and administrative attitudes towards Native language teaching and English; involvement of tribal communities in curricular decision making; assessment issues related to the evaluation of Native language learners.

Motivations for Native American Language Renewal and Heritage Language Transfer

Maintaining Native American languages is considered by many tribes to be an integral part of distinct tribal identities. To lose language is to lose oral histories, unique worldviews, common spiritual beliefs, and all the collective expressions that identify each tribe as separate from others (Fishman 1991, 1996).

Some of the first efforts to address Native American language maintenance have been influenced to a great extent by school-based models of bilingual education or formal institutional initiatives (Arviso and Holm 1990; Boyer 2000; Dale 2000; Holm 1993; Johnson 2000; McCarty 1994, 1998, 2002; McCarty and Zepeda 1995; Mistaken Chief, Sr. 2000). More recently, Native American language revitalization efforts being implemented in other tribes are utilizing community-based language initiatives as their starting point in an attempt to address the need for re-strengthening language use in communities and creating younger generations of Native language speakers (Benjamin, Romero, and Pecos 1997; Blum-Martinez 2000; Blum-Martinez and Pecos 2001; Blum-Martinez, Hinton, and Sims 2001; Hale and Hinton 2001; Kipp 2000; Sims 1996, 1998, 2001). In these latter cases tribal members in their various capacities as fluent speaking elders, Native traditional leaders and parents have taken up the responsibility of Native language teaching and language renewal. As Fishman has argued, language revitalization efforts situated solely in school settings may have limited results in terms of mother tongue transfer (Fishman 1991). Drawing from this argument, it would be well to understand more precisely how some of the following aspects influence the course of language renewal efforts being pursued in various Native American communities:

1. What is the nature of motivations for language renewal in Native American communities and to what extent do these motivations contribute to effective practices in language transfer?

2. What are the implications for language initiatives that are designed as school based and community based programs? What are the outcomes with regard to producing new generations of Native speakers?

3. What are the dynamics of Native communities that motivate internal leadership of language renewal efforts? To what extent and in what ways do such aspects serve to help or hinder long- term language transmission?

4. What types of internal resources of home and community do tribal communities utilize to bring about intergenerational uses of language?

A sub-set of linking questions might also include the following:

5. To what extent do school-based practices that largely emphasize the acquisition of English literacy and the use of English-based assessments impact the critical development and attitudes towards Native language and cultural learning that are situated in homes and tribal communities?

6. What is the role and impact of literacy as a social construct in the lives of traditional Native American language communities and to what extent is it perceived as a necessary part of language renewal and intergenerational language transmission? How do current language revitalization efforts mirror or reflect these perspectives and attitudes?

7. What has been the impact upon language transmission in given communities where Native American language programs and initiatives have developed Native literacy models as part of their strategies for language revitalization?

8. In what ways do models of English literacy serve to influence or change former sociocultural traditions of orality that have been the basis of language transmission in many Native American societies? How are such traditions influenced, supported, or changed with respect to language initiatives being implemented in various tribal communities?

For Native American tribes, their unique status as America's indigenous people encompasses a number of factors that make their languages unlike other minority language groups in this nation. Native American languages, for example, are not exactly the same as "world" languages in the sense that one can find these spoken in other parts of the world. Secondly, many Native American languages have existed and some still function primarily within a sociocultural and socioreligious community context (Suina 1990; Blum-Martinez 2000). As well, indigenous languages are primarily rooted in long standing traditions of orality rather than literate traditions (Hale and Hinton 2001; Hornberger 1989).

Historically, every Native American tribe has experienced overt pressures to assimilate, alter or otherwise abandon former ways of traditional life (Adams 1995, 1998; Reyhner and Eder 1989; Reyhner 1992). Estimates provided by the linguist Michael Krauss indicate that approximately 210 indigenous languages are still extant in the United States and Canada. Of these, Krauss estimates that 35 are being spoken by parent generations and older; 84 are being spoken only by grandparent generations and older; and the remaining 57 are spoken by only a handful of speakers who are most likely the oldest generations from a given language group (Krauss 1998).

The Native American Languages Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-477) passed by the U.S. Congress recognized in its provisions the unique status that tribes have in the United States as sovereign entities through treaties and acts of Congress (Cohen 1982). Yet, they are under increasing pressure to defend their unique political status as well as their cultural and linguistic heritages. The Act supports Native American language restoration and maintenance efforts and encourages school entities to work with tribes and schools in implementing Native language programs of instruction. To what degree such acts influence national and local policies or how this will in fact contribute to the maintenance and transmission of Native American languages is yet to be seen or fully realized. The more immediate contribution that research can make, in the meantime, is to explicate the "what" and "how" of effective practices for language transmission in Native American communities. These are areas of much needed information that can better inform tribal leaders and their communities as they make choices and decisions that affect the long-term vitality of their languages.

Language Resource Center