Opinion: Native languages slowly dying out

"Any Indian caught worrying that we might indeed vanish can expect to be grouped with the self-haters. While many things go into making a culture -- kinship, history, religion, place -- the disappearance of our languages suggests that our cultures, in total, may not be here for much longer.

For now, many Native American languages still exist, but most of them just barely, with only a handful of surviving speakers, all of them old. (On Jan. 21, Marie Smith Jones, the last living fluent speaker of Eyak, one of about 20 remaining Native Alaskan languages, died at the age of 89.) Linguists estimate that when Europeans first came to this continent, more than 300 Native American languages were spoken in North America. Today, there are only about 100. Within a century, if nothing is done, only a handful will remain, including my language, Ojibwe.

Another heartening exception is the Blackfoot language. The tribe dropped to a population of just over 1,000 in 1900, but they have grown again, and their language is on the upswing -- largely because of the efforts of the Piegan Institute, based on the Blackfoot reservation in northwest Montana, with a mission of promoting the tribe's language. Once moribund ceremonies are on the verge of flourishing again. But for many tribes -- who struggle to retain the remnants of their land, life ways, sovereignty and physical and mental health -- what is left can't really be called culture, at least not in the word's true sense.

Cultures change, of course. Sometimes they change slowly, in response to warming temperatures or new migration patterns. At other times, cultural changes are swift -- the result of colonialism or famine or migration or war. But at some point (and no one is too anxious to identify it exactly), a culture ceases to be a culture and becomes an ethnicity -- that is, it changes from a life system that develops its own terms into one that borrows, almost completely, someone else's."

Get the Story:
David Treuer: If They're Lost, Who Are We? (The Washington Post 4/6)

Relevant Links:
David Treuer - http://www.davidtreuer.com

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