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Native American Languages


Some say that there may have been between 1,000- 2,000 native languages in North America before the arrival of the Europeans. No one knows for sure.  Some experts say that at least half of those languages are now extinct.  Others say that as many as 90% of those languages are extinct. Extinct, in this case, means that no one is left who can speak that language fluently.  What we do know, for certain, is that Native American languages are among the most endangered languages on earth.  More and more languages are being lost every year.


1492 -   between 1,000 – 2,000 Native American languages were spoken

2011 -   between 175-296 Native American languages are spoken today

  Kanienkeha teachers at Kanatsiohareke 2011

Why are Native languages at risk of being lost?


When the Europeans came to the Americas, many of them looked down on Native Americans.  They didn’t understand native ways and so thought of them as strange.   As a result, they tried to exterminate Native people by killing them.  They tried to relocate them by forcing them to live somewhere that wasn’t their traditional homeland.  They tried to assimilate them by forcing them to change their lifestyle and to live like non-Natives.   One of the techniques used by foreign governments was to take Native American children away from their families and communities and put them in schools where they weren’t allowed to speak their languages or do anything that was part of their culture.   Many of them weren’t allowed to go home for long periods of time, even years.  Their hair was cut.  Their traditional clothing was taken away and replaced with clothing that non-Natives wore.   They were no longer treated as children, but rather as little soldiers.  They were taught to be ashamed of who they were, of their families, of their ancestors, and of their traditions and ceremonies.   They were punished for speaking their language and so many of them forgot how to speak in the language of their own families.   They weren’t given the opportunity to learn their own traditions.  When they went back home and had families of their own, many of them couldn’t speak to their children in their own language.  The few who could still speak in their own language had been taught to feel ashamed of who they were and so many didn’t teach their children how to speak in their traditional language.

   Kanienkeha chalkboard



Today, there is great interest in revitalizing or strengthening Native American Indian languages. For the last thirty years, Native Americans including the Haudenosaunee have been trying various programs to keep their languages.  Many schools with Native students are including language classes.  Some language immersion schools like the Akwesasne Freedom School teach all of the subjects in Kanienkeha starting with Kindergarten and up to sixth grade.   Then, the seventh and eight graders learn to read and write in English.  (Most of the students already know how to speak English.)  The I.L. Thomas K-8 Elementary School at Six Nations Reserve offers a Cayuga Immersion Program. Some schools, like the Kanatsiohareke Immersion Program, offer language classes to adults so they can converse with their families at home.  Some communities offer Language Nests where toddlers and babies spend the day with fluent baby sitters who only speak in their traditional language to the children.  New teaching materials are being developed.   Books are being written.  DVD and CD’s are being made.  Radio programs are being started.  Research is being done to discover which techniques and materials are working best in keeping Native languages alive and strong.




The experts say that Native languages are doomed to become extinct.  But, many Native teachers and students are working hard to prove them wrong.  There are more and more native language programs being developed every year. 

Why is it important to save Native languages?


Spoken language is one of the main ways humans communicate with one another.  We also communicate through hand and body motions, facial expressions, writing, singing, art and dance.  But spoken and written language provides a way in which we can give precise details and explanation of what we want to share. 



Language is tied into how we feel about ourselves as individuals and how we relate to the rest of the world.  Language links us to our families and to our ancestors.  Language reminds us of our history, our culture, our spirituality and our traditions.  It gives a strong sense of identity and pride.  Many Native people feel that when their language is gone, there is a sense of personal loss of pride and identity.   When we can speak the same language that was given to our ancestors, there is a strong sense of pride and community because we are able to better understand from where we have come.



The traditional ceremonies of the Haudenosaunee are supposed to be conducted in the traditional languages.  With the loss of language, there is a loss of knowledge and spiritual connection.  How will the ceremonies continue with the same depth of understanding if the languages are gone?


Lost in Translation

Some think that all we need is one language.  But if you ever heard the expression, “lost in translation,” you know that you can’t always translate one word or one idea into another language without losing some of the meaning or cultural context.  Haudenosaunee languages are pictorial.  They paint pictures in the listener’s mind that describe what is being discussed.    A word isn’t just a word.  It might describe what an object looks like, how it feels, how it is used, or how it tastes or smells.  It might refer to a story of how it is important to the culture or a society.  When one word in Kanienkeha (Mohawk language) is translated to mean one word in English, all of the cultural or spiritual connections might be left out.  The word becomes flat rather than multi-dimensional.  That is why it is said that when a language is lost, then at least 50% of the culture is lost as well.  Much of the wisdom of the ancestors and knowledge of the plants and medicines are encoded or embedded in the language.  When someone learns more than one language, they also learn to think in many different ways.  They increase their ability to look at the world in new ways. 

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