For more than 80 years, ending only in 1978 with the passage of the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act, the United States government operated a network of boarding schools expressly designed to destroy Native Americans' language and culture. By (often forcibly) removing Native children from their families, elders, and communities these schools aimed to break the cycle of language transmission and convert children to the belief that their tribal ceremonial practices and religious beliefs were backward, even evil. If children dared to speak their language at school, they were severely punished, and often beaten. When these children grew up, they chose not to speak their Indigenous language to their own children in order to protect them from discrimation and abuse, and the language began to die.
Now most Native American languages are spoken only by a handful of elderly people, the remaining graduates of these schools. Unless we all support these communities to pass these languages to their children while there is still time, they will disappear, taking with them tens of thousands of years of accumulated cultural heritage, sophisticated environmental understandings, spiritual traditions, and a unique aspect of humanity.
Fortunately, there are techniques that work to teach language: immersion methodologies (where the Indigenous language is used as the medium of instruction), such as master apprentice programs, immersion classes, schools, and camps, where fluent speakers teach small groups of learners. And when language is revived, it tends to lift whole communities. Children's performance in (and attendance at) school improves when their identity is positively affirmed and enforced, and they tend to graduate and go on to college at much higher rates. But tribal language programs are all underfunded, often isolated, and lack essential resources and training. Since 2008 Cultural Survival has responded to local tribal requests for assistance in supporting immersion preschools, classrooms, camps, and master apprentice teams across the United States.
Our collaborations with tribal language programs begins to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, affirmed by the U.S. government only in December 2010. In particular, the Declaration outlines the the following explicit language rights as a baseline human rights standard (though nearly half of its 46 articles pertain to language and cultural rights, including the rights to self-determination and to be free from discrimination):
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.
2. States shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected and also to ensure that indigenous peoples can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.
2. Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination.
3. States shall, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take effective measures, in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children, including those living outside their communities, to have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language.
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to establish their own media in their own languages and to have access to all forms of non-indigenous media without discrimination.
2. States shall take effective measures to ensure that State-owned media duly reflect indigenous cultural diversity. States, without prejudice to ensuring full freedom of expression, should encourage privately owned media to adequately reflect indigenous cultural diversity.