Breathing New Life Into Native American Languages

At the end of the first Indiana Jones movie, the newly-found Lost Ark leaves Indy’s possession to go to a sterile, austere government holding facility — an archive. Baskets, beadwork, and bronze sculptures are some of what we preserve in museums and archives. Languages are, too. But language is not some relic whose destiny is best preserved in a pristine acrylic tomb. Language is meant to be used. It is the living embodiment of what it means to be human, encoding and expressing memories of those generations long ago and yet to come. And right now, representatives from a variety of Native American tribes have converged on Washington, D.C. archives to breathe new life into their languages, to transform language preserved into language lived and language living.

With abundant natural resources found in its forests, coasts, mountains and meadows, California is rich in biodiversity. No less rich in cultural and linguistic diversity, California is estimated by scholar Victor Golla to be home to 78 distinct Native California languages, which he estimates as making up “nearly a third of the indigenous languages” spoken north of Mesoamerica. Spanish missions, boarding schools, segregation of public education, all these and more led to dwindling numbers of fluent speakers of Native American languages. California tribes turned the drastic loss of their languages into innovative approaches for teaching endangered languages. One such approach, the Breath of Life, Silent No More Workshop, converted preservation into reclamation by reuniting communities with their heritage, these archived language materials. Breath of Life co-founders Leanne Hinton (Professor Emerita of UC Berkeley) and L. Frank Manriquez (Tongva/Ajachmem) recognized access includes not only physical objects like manuscripts, but also the linguistic knowledge to comprehend the materials. Their model pairs each heritage language team with a linguist —> Read More