Language is important for identity because it is closely linked to culture, which is the marker of who we are as human beings.
In 2007, a study was conducted in 150 First Nations villages in British Columbia, Canada, to understand how the loss of Indian languages impacted speakers. The study found that villages that lost their language had suicide rates six times higher than those that managed to fight assimilationist forces, especially schooling in English only. The latter clung better to their mother tongue, and therefore to their culture of origin.
Dr Sheilah Nicholas of the University of Arizona, who herself belongs to the Hopi tribe, recently examined how Hopi children spoke more English and less Hopi. She points out that the ancient Hopi linked this loss of their own languages to “non-Hopi” behavior, such as “substance abuse, gang membership and domestic violence” and a decline in traditional Hopi values. of the tribe, including hard work and humility. Overall, assimilationist education has left behind many indigenous peoples around the world; clearly, they are less educated than their non-native peers and more likely to live in poverty.
Tribal governments were dissolved and schools were taken over by the new state of Oklahoma
Efforts to suppress Native American languages in North America date back to colonial times, when Native peoples were considered “savages.” Anthropologists refer to this view of “others” as ethnocentrism, where people tend to view their own culture and language as normal and superior, while the cultures and languages of others are abnormal and inferior. If a group is in a dominant position, as the European colonial powers were for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, they tend to impose their cultures and languages on the peoples they conquered.
In this vein, around 1879, the United States government began funding boarding schools to remove, sometimes by force, Native American children from their families in order to provide them with an education only in English, thereby marginalizing languages and languages. tribal cultures. This effort to assimilate the Amerindians continued with little interruption until the twentieth century.
The Cherokee and a few other tribes in Indian Territory (now the state of Oklahoma) successfully ran their own schools until 1907, when, despite protests, their tribal governments were dissolved and the schools were taken over by the new state of Oklahoma. So far, tribal autonomy has only been partially restored.
A new awareness emerged in the United States regarding the treatment of ethnic and racial minorities in the 1940s. This occurred in reaction to evidence of racism from Nazi Germany as well as an increased concern for them. human rights after WWII, especially within the newly formed United Nations. The civil rights movement of the 1960s that led to the end of separate schools and other facilities for African Americans also drew attention to the treatment of American Indians, who, as a group, had tend to live in poverty and had below average academic achievement.
In the 1980s, native Hawaiians became increasingly concerned that almost no child spoke Hawaiian languages. Seeing how New Zealand Maori, faced with a similar situation, established language nests to teach Maori language to their young children, a few parents have set up their own Hawaiian language nests. They then lobbied the state government to establish Hawaiian language immersion schools so that today one can even write his PhD thesis in the Hawaiian language at the University of Hawaii. .
200 tribal governments in the United States have started adopting tribal language policies to push parents and schools to teach their young people tribal languages
Some of the more than 200 tribal governments in the United States have started adopting tribal language policies to push parents and schools to teach their young people tribal languages. In 1990, in part as part of an initiative to make English the official language of the United States, the United States Congress passed the Native American Languages Act which made it an official policy to preserve and protect Native American languages.
While still in its infancy, there is a growing movement by Native Americans to establish language immersion schools where children are taught in their tribal languages. For example, in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation, some 200 Navajo students are immersed in the Navajo language for the first year of schooling, and in Flagstaff, Arizona, just outside the Navajo Nation border, there is a small Navajo immersion audience. school where students successfully learn to read and write the Navajo language as well as math, science and other subjects in that language.
In 1998, in California, the most populist state in the United States, voters passed a measure, Proposition 227, largely banning bilingual education, primarily Spanish-English programs, in their public schools and calling for to assimilationist education only in English. While not affecting Native Americans, this measure was an indication of hostility to languages other than English.
However, in 2016, Californian voters passed a new Proposition 58 allowing bilingual education. In 2006, the US Congress passed the Esther Martinez Preservation of Native American Languages Act. This was signed into law by President George W. Bush, which authorized funding for new programs, including immersion schools in tribal languages. Hopefully this will help the tribes to avoid further loss of their heritage and culture.
The law didn’t allow much funding, but it, along with California Proposition 58, are signs that many Americans are becoming less ethnocentric and more accepting of other languages and cultures.