Keeping Indigenous Languages Alive

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 07, 2008 1 min read
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I hope you’ve gotten the message already that although I recognize the benefits for anyone living in this country to learn English, I don’t believe English should be valued over anyone’s native language or the language of one’s heritage.

Unfortunately, this country has a history of official discrimination against American Indian languages that contributed greatly to their decline. One of the most damaging policies in this regard was that the federal government forced many Native Americans to attend boarding schools, starting in the 1870s, where they were prohibited from speaking their native languages. Most off-reservation boarding schools were closed in the 1930s, but many Native Americans still attended such schools on reservations after that.

At the Heard Museum in Phoenix a few years ago, I heard sad, recorded testimonies from Native Americans about how they were punished if they spoke their mother tongues at boarding school. Also, when I visited a Navajo reservation in Arizona a couple of years ago for Education Week, I met elderly people who explained that the boarding-school era had a lasting effect in conditioning people not to use their native languages. After boarding school, many spoke mostly English in their own households, and thus didn’t pass the language on to their children.

Still some Native American communities are persisting in fighting the dominance of English through programs that engage children in learning indigenous languages. One organization supporting such initiatives is the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M. You can read recent stories about efforts to revitalize indigenous languages that have been selected by the Web team of, and are posted here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.