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Robert Miller: Preserving American Indian Languages and Cultures. (APS Native American Conference.)


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This part of the conference “Building Partnerships Between Archives and Indian Communities,” held at the American Philosophical Society (APS) in Philadelphia, May 2010.

“Preserving American Indian Languages and Cultures.”
Robert Miller, Prof. of Law at Lewis and Clark School and Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals of the Grand Ronde Tribe.

“This is an historic moment, a chance to truly share materials together to preserve Native languages and cultures.

Robert Miller

Robert Miller. / Lewis and Clark Law School

“But last week, at a lecture in San Antonio someone asked me, ‘Shouldn’t you just join the Melting Pot and become a regular American?’ My answer is: Absolutely not! Native Americans do not want to lose their language and culture, which makes them separate from Americans and the Melting Pot. But many feel like they are living in two worlds – one of speaking English and being American, and the tribal pull.

“Preserving language is absolutely crucial – language is the key to a separate existence and distinct culture. The English language does not reflect the meanings, ways and degrees [in Native languages]. This is not an academic exercise – it’s about keeping the culture alive for the next generation, and the next 1,000 years.

When Columbus stumbled into the Caribbean in 1492, there were 300 Native languages. In 2000, there were 175 alive in 29 states. But of those 175, only 11 percent were still spoken; of those still spoken, 40 percent were only by the grandparents, and 17 percent only by the parents. In 10 years (this year), it was predicted that 75 percent of the languages would be extinct. The remaining languages are in a precarious existence.

Walam Olum: Delaware Indian Pictographs

Ink sketch of Delaware Indian pictographs with English translations, simple signs found in the Linapi (sic) Wallamolum. C.S. Rafinesque, 1833. / APS: C.S. Rafinesque Correspondence and Writings

“For the Navajo, in 1980, 90% of 6-year-olds could speak the language, but in 2000 it dropped to 30%. Did television rob them of their language and culture? On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, there are 29,000 people but only 5-15% of them are fluent, and of the speakers, 60% are 50 or older. For the Pawnee, in 1965 there were 200 fluent speakers, but the last died in 2006. The loss of language directly leads to the loss of religion, culture and ceremonies.

How did that happen? This was the goal of the English, French and Spanish. Though the first Bible was translated [into Native languages], soon after they taught English to assimilate the Indian people. From 1819-1873, Congress supported the Civilization Fund that provided schools on and off the reservations. These schools took children away from 5-18 years old, punishing them when they spoke their own language. In 1869, the schools required them to practice Christianity, and in 1875 all Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools required all communication to be in English. In 1868, the BIA decreed: ‘Sameness in language leads to sameness in thought and sentiment.’ In 1877, there were 170 BIA schools, while in 1909 there were more than 300. Now there are 85 schools.

Vocabulary of the Unquachog Indians

Thomas Jefferson's manuscript of a vocabulary of the Unquachog Indians, 1791. / APS American Indian Vocabulary Collection

“Thomas Jefferson wanted to prove where the Indian people came from. He collected vocabularies from all of the tribes east of the Mississippi, and told Lewis and Clark to collect vocabulary lists. The vocabularies were unfortunately lost when Jefferson moved to Monticello in 1809. Lewis and Clark also collected a questionnaire of every tribe, including military intelligence. Jefferson was the father of the ‘Removal Era.’ Lewis and Clark found out which tribes would be willing to move west, and also which tribes in the west would accept tribes moving from the east.

“What are the tribes doing? Some are in business development, such as by building casinos. Some languages are being revived, for example Chinook Jargon is being taught, even though it’s a trade language with French, English and Spanish words.

Sioux boys as they arrived at the Indian Training School, Carlisle Barracks, Oct. 5th, 1879

Sioux boys as they arrived at the Indian Training School, Carlisle Barracks, Oct. 5th, 1879. / Frank Speck, APS Speck-Choate Photograph Collection.

“Tribes must teach younger children their language. The Blackfoot’s Piegan Institute practices language immersion, which is the only way to teach, especially for the first five years in a child’s life. Tribal schools have low attendance and high dropout rates. But if they taught the tribal languages in high school, who would be the A student then? It validates the minority people who do not read about themselves in American history textbooks.

“What is the federal government doing today? In 1972, the Indian Education Act supported bilingual education for Indian schools. But 36 states have English-only curricula, and Arizona recently banned ethnic studies programs. In 1990, the Native American Language Act (NALA) said that the United States has a responsibility to act together with Native Americans, and awards special status to Native Americans, including recognizing that separate identity and language are integral to the survival of Indian culture. Student achievement and school pride are tied to the first language of the child. Indian languages should be taught at the elementary, secondary and higher education levels.

Indian boys at the Indian Training School, 1880.

Indian boys (from 16 different tribes) at the Indian Training School, April 20th 1880. / Frank Speck: APS Speck-Choate Photograph Collection.

“Oregon passed a law letting the tribes certify who can teach their language, and that it can’t require any certification or bachelor’s degree. Washington state passed the same in 2007. Since 1992, NALA has awarded only $13 million in 166 grants, only about one-fifth of the $63 million requested. A Senate report showed that this was only policy, and not required by the United States. This shows that the 50 states are not dependable. Tribal people can’t wait another 200 years for U.S. to help them.

Indian students who see themselves in the curriculum helps reduce the dropout rate, just like how a recent Oregonian article showed the same for Latino and African-American students.

“This is an historic opportunity for tribes to work together with the APS. In order for tribes to have separateness and a unique culture, language is the most important aspect.


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