Nurturing Native
Languages and Cultures
Jon Reyhner
John J. Miller of The National Review, writing
in The Wall Street Journal in 2002, declared
that the increasing pace of language death is “a
trend that is arguably worth celebrating
[because] age-old obstacles to communication
are collapsing” and primitive societies are
being brought into the modern world. However,
far too often this modern world is one of the
materialistic and hedonistic MTV culture.
Miller's call for celebration is nothing new, and
I hope in this speech today to show how
wrongheaded it is.
Stephen R. Riggs and his wife Mary started
missionary work with the Sioux in 1837. In
1852 he published a Grammar and Dictionary of
the Dakota Language. They found teaching
English “to be very difficult and not producing
much apparent fruit.” It was not the students’
lack of ability that prevented them from
learning English, but rather their
unwillingness. “Teaching Dakota was a
different thing. It was their own language.” 3
In 1869 After the Civil War, President Grant’s
Peace Commissioners concluded that language
differences led to misunderstandings and that
“by educating the children of these tribes in
the English language these differences would
have disappeared, and civilization would have
followed at once . . . Through sameness of
language is produced sameness of sentiment,
and thought; customs and habits are molded
and assimilated in the same way, and thus in
process of time the differences producing
trouble would have been gradually
The Peace Commission went on to declare
“In the difference of language to-day lies
two-thirds of our trouble. . . . Schools should
be established, which children should be
required to attend; their barbarous dialect
should be blotted out and the English
language substituted.”
However, while Christian missionaries
were in favor of ending tribal traditions, they
were more willing than the government to
use tribal languages in their teaching.
In 1869 Reverend S.D. Hinman reported, “it
is a wonder to me how readily they learn to read
our language; little fellows will read correctly
page after page of their school books, and be able
to spell every word, and yet not comprehend the
meaning of a single sentence.” He complained
about the “monotony and necessary sameness of
the school-room duty.” In contrast to the
problems associated with getting Indians to learn
English, Hinman reported that three adult
Yankton (Sioux) warriors rode back and forth
from their agency forty miles every week to learn
to read and write their own language.
In the 1871 report of the Board of Indian
Commissioners Mr. Welsh wrote “Theirs is a
phonetic language, and a smart boy will learn it in
three or four weeks; and we have found it far better
to instruct them in their own language, and also to
teach them English as fast as we can.” The
missionaries’ success of teaching Native languages
is indicated in the same report by Mr. Janney, a
Quaker, who wrote that “A very small portion of
the tribe, so far as I could discover, speak or write
the English language, but a large number speak
and write their own, and are able to hold
correspondence with those who are in Minnesota7
and Wisconsin.”
In contrast to the success of native language
instruction, reports on English language
instruction were often discouraging. For
example, in 1872 the Tahlequah Indian Agent
reported that “The children . . . go to school,
and with great labor learn to read and write
English, but without understanding the
meaning of the words they read and write”
while “almost the whole of those Cherokees
who do not speak English can read and write
the Cherokee by using the characters invented
by Sequoyah.”
In 1871 the American Board of
Commissioners for Foreign Missions and
the Presbyterian Board of Foreign
Missions started publishing with the
Dakota mission a monthly newspaper
called IAPI OAYE (The Word Carrier)
mostly in the Dakota language. An editorial
in an early edition of that paper declared,
“It is sheer laziness in the teacher to berate his
Indian scholars for not understanding English,
when he does not understand enough Indian to tell
them the meaning of a single one of the sentences
he is trying to make them understand properly,
though they have no idea of the sense. The teacher
with his superior mind, should be able to learn half
a dozen languages while these children of darkness
are learning one. Even though the teacher’s object
were only to have them master English, he had
better teach it to them in Indian, so they may
understand what they are learning.”
The correspondent with Secretary of the
Interior Schurz reported in 1880 that, “Mr.
[Alfred] Riggs is of the opinion that first
teaching the children to read and write in
their own language enables them to master
English with more ease when they take up
that study; and he thinks, also, that a child
beginning a four years’ course with the study
of Dakota would be further advanced in
English at the end of the term than one who
had not been instructed in Dakota.”
In spite of this, Secretary of the Interior
Schurz demanded in 1880 that “all instruction
must be in English” in mission and government schools. In 1884 an order went out to a
school teaching in Dakota and English that
“English language only must be taught the
Indian youth placed there for educational and
industrial training at the expense of the
Government. If Dakota or any other language
is taught such children, they will be taken
away and their support by the Government
will be withdrawn from the school.”
The ethnocentric attitude prevalent in the late 19th
Century is again evident in Commissioner of Indian
Affairs J.D.C. Atkins' 1887 report: “Every nation is
jealous of its own language, and no nation ought to be
more so than ours, which approaches nearer than
any other nationality to the perfect protection of its
people. True Americans all feel that the Constitution,
laws, and institutions of the United States, in their
adaptation to the wants and requirements of man,
are superior to those of any other country; and they
should understand that by the spread of the English
language will these laws and institutions be more
firmly established and widely disseminated.”
“Nothing so surely and perfectly stamps upon
an individual a national characteristic as
language. . . . [As the Indians] are in an
English-speaking country, they must be taught
the language which they must use in
transacting business with the people of this
country. No unity or community of feeling can
be established among different peoples unless
they are brought to speak the same language,
and thus become imbued with like ideas of
duty. . . .”
“The instruction of the Indians in the
vernacular is not only of no use to them, but is
detrimental to the cause of their education and
civilization, and no school will be permitted on
the reservation in which the English language
is not exclusively taught.”
A number of missionaries strongly objected to
Atkins' orders, claiming that he lacked
knowledge of their successes in the field.
Missionary societies that were engaged in
foreign missions were very conscious of
importance of using local languages in their
work. The president of Dartmouth college
declared that, “The idea of reaching and
permanently elevating the great mass of any
people whatever, by first teaching them all a
foreign tongue, is too absurd ever to have been
entertained by sane men.”
Luther Standing Bear (1928) complained that the
Civil Service Examination was not necessary for
primary teachers and that his students did better
than the students of white teachers who got all their
knowledge from books “but outside of that, they
knew nothing.” He felt, “The Indian children
should have been taught how to translate the Sioux
tongue into English properly; but the English
teachers only taught them the English language,
like a bunch of parrots. While they could read all
the words placed before them, they did not know
the proper use of them; their meaning was a
Polingaysi Qöyawayma
Starting as a 1st grade teacher in the early 1930s,
Polingaysi was nervous, but she felt that she at least
knew her students’ language. However, her
supervisors reminded her she was forbidden to use
the Hopi language. She questioned their directives:
“What do these white-man stories mean to a Hopi
child? What is a ‘choo-choo’ to these little ones who
have never seen a train? No! I will not begin with
the outside world of which they have no knowledge.
I shall begin with the familiar. The everyday things.
The things of home and family.”
In defiance of her supervisors she continued to
substitute familiar Hopi legends, songs, and stories for
Little Red Riding Hood. Parents questioned what she
was teaching, saying, “We send our children to school
to learn the white man’s way, not Hopi. They can
learn the Hopi way at home.” Despite these
complaints she persevered in trying to help her
children “blend the best of the Hopi tradition with the
best of the white culture, retaining the essence of
good, whatever its source.” When John Collier
became Indian Commissioner in 1934 under
Roosevelt, she found “overnight” her teaching
methods supported, to the “consternation” of the
older teachers.
Indian New Deal
During the “Indian
New Deal” of Franklin
D. Roosevelt’s
Administration, the
Indian Office supported progressive
education and
experimented with
bilingual education.
Rock Point Community School
Rock Point Community School started a
maintenance/developmental bilingual program in 1967 when it was found that English
as a Second Language (ESL) teaching
methods did not bring up Navajo students’
tests scores to national averages. In Rock
Point’s bilingual program students were
taught using immersion teaching methods to
read and write Navajo starting in Kindergarten while they also start learning English.
UNM Professor Bernard Spolsky summed up the
results of the RPCS bilingual program: “In a
community that respects its own language but wishes
its children to learn another, a good bilingual
program that starts with the bulk of instruction in
the child’s native language and moves systematically
toward the standard language will achieve better
results in standard language competence than a
program that refuses to recognize the existence of the
native language.” Navajo Tribal Chairman Peterson
Zah noted the importance of teaching Navajo in
schools in 1983. He declared that, “No-one can fully
participate in the affairs of the Navajo people
without speaking Navajo.”
Navajo Literacy
Tony Smiley, who worked as a literacy tutor at
Rock Point Community School, recently wrote,
“there were Navajo literacy classes offered locally.
Diné college also offered classes and we were even
encouraged to get our certification in Navajo
language through the college. Eventually I ended
up in the classroom and taught Navajo language. I
think that this is the best thing that has happened
to me. I believe that it made me more aware of
myself. I consider myself lucky to be able to read
and write in Navajo.”
Another Navajo teacher Carol Johnson
stated, “From writing I’ve learned how to
read. It has helped me to feel confident in the
classroom. I've also greatly improved in my
speaking of the language. I can read Navajo
stories to my students.... They know that our
language has its own writing. I always tell
them that it is hard to learn but once you've
come across that barrier, you can accomplish
Navajo Tribal Education Policies
In 1984 the Navajo Tribal Council adopted a language
policy. In its preface Tribal Chairman Peterson Zah
wrote, “We believe that an excellent education can
produce achievement in the basic academic skills and
skills required by modern technology and still educate
young Navajo citizens in their language, history,
government and culture.” The policies require schools
serving Navajo students to have courses in Navajo
history and culture and support local control, parental
involvement, Indian preference in hiring, and
instruction in the Navajo language. They declare:
Navajo Tribal Education Policies
The Navajo language is an essential element of the
life, culture and identity of the Navajo people. The
Navajo Nation recognizes the importance of
preserving and perpetuating that language to the
survival of the Nation. Instruction in the Navajo
language shall be made available for all grade levels
in all schools serving the Navajo Nation. Navajo
language instruction shall include to the greatest
extent practicable: thinking, speaking,
comprehension, reading and writing skills and study
of the formal grammar of the language.
Native American Languages Act
In 1990 Congress passed and President George
H. W. Bush signed The Native American
Languages Act. It states that it’s the policy of
the U.S. Government to support, preserve, and
protect American Indian languages. It is a
tribute to American Indians determined
persistence against the forces of cultural
assimilation and a reaction to renewed calls for
assimilation from the conservative Englishonly movement that wants a constitutional
amendment to make English the official
language of the U.S.
Indian Nations at Risk Task Force
In 1991, the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Indian
Nations at Task Force identified four reasons that
Indian Nations are at risk. Its second reason was that
“Schools have discouraged the used of Native
languages… [with the result that] the language and
culture base of the American Native are rapidly
eroding" The Task Force set 10 national goals, with
goal 2 being: “By the year 2000 all schools will offer
Native students the opportunity to maintain and
develop their tribal languages and will create a
multicultural environment that enhances the many
cultures represented in the school.”
In the Final Report's transmittal letter, the Task
Force's co-chairs, former Secretary of Education
Terrel H. Bell and former Alaska Commissioner of
Education William G. Demmert, Jr., wrote:
“The Task Force believes that a well-educated
American Indian and Alaska Native citizenry and a
renewal of the language and culture base of the
American Native community will strengthen selfdetermination and economic well-being and will
allow the Native community to contribute to building
a stronger nation—an America that can compete with
other nations and contribute to the world's economies
and cultures.”
Te Kohanga Reo
To counter the rapid loss of their language
Maori leaders decided to capitalize on the
fact that many elders still spoke their
language and started in 1982 a Maori
immersion preschool movement, called te
kohanga reo, which translates as “language
nest,” using fluent Maori speaking elders.
The main features of these Maori preschools were that Maori was the only
language to be spoken and heard, no
smoking was allowed, they were to be kept
very clean in the interest of health, and
decisions were made by the parents and
preschool teachers. The preschools spread
rapidly and by 1991, there were 700 of
these preschools with 10,000 children
As more Maori speaking children graduated
from the language nests, parents wanting their
children’s Maori education continued put
pressure on the New Zealand government to
established Maori immersion elementary
schools. Using wording in the 1840 Treaty of
Waitangi between the British government and
the Maori, the Maori were able to convince the
government to build on the success of the
preschools by first providing Maori immersion
elementary schools, then secondary schools, and
finally Maori language university programs.
Native Hawaiians started family-based
immersion preschools in 1984 soon after the
Maori of New Zealand pioneered them. A
parent described to me the Punano Leo as “a
way of life…you have to take it home” that is
bringing back the moral values of the culture
and explained how that helped mend families.
Parent involvement includes parents learning
the language and volunteering to help clean
the preschool.
On March 8-10, 2004, the Bureau of Indian
Affair’s Office of Indian Education Programs
(OIEP) held its third Language and Culture
Preservation Conference in Albuquerque, New
Mexico. OIEP director Ed Parisian welcomed the
large gathering of Bureau educators to this
meeting, emphasizing the BIA’s goal that
“students will demonstrate knowledge of language
and culture to improve academic achievement.”
He went on to say that “we know from research
and experience that individuals who are strongly
rooted in their past—who know where they come
from—are often best equipped to face the future.”
Aha Punana Leo
In one OIEP session, Namaka Rawlins, director of
the Hawaiian Aha Punana Leo program, noted that
in Hawaii they are working now to get a Hawaiian
Ph.D. degree program approved. While starting
with preschool language nests, they have moved on
to elementary, secondary, and now university
Hawaiian language medium (immersion) classes.
The Hawaiian language medium school movement
has been parent driven. Rather than ghettoization,
she noted that “our traditions are relevant for all
students’ education,” and some non-Hawaiians
Rawlins noted that students in the Hawaiian
immersion classes are doing equal to or better
than English students, but it takes about two
years to fully transition to an all-English
program if they drop out of the Hawaiian
program. The success of the program is tied to
the commitment of parents and teachers. For
teachers, “this is a way of life; it’s not just a
job.” The goal of the Hawaiian immersion
programs is to re-establish the traditional
Hawaiian philosophy of life and apply it to
modern times.
It was not till 1986 that the 1896 law against
using the Hawaiian language in schools was
repealed. There are now 22 immersion or
Hawaiian medium schools with about 2,000
children enrolled. Only four schools can
teach algebra and biology in Hawaiian
because of the lack of qualified teachers. As
Hawaiian medium instruction matures,
teachers are moving from translating
curriculum from English to Hawianizing it.
Punana Leo (Language Nest)
Mission Statement
“The Punana Leo Movement grew out of a
dream that there be reestablished throughout
Hawai’i the mana of a living Hawaiian language
from the depth of our origins. The Punana Leo
initiates, provides for and nurtures various
Hawaiian Language environments, and we find
our strength in our spirituality, love of our
language, love of our people, love of our land,
and love of knowledge.”
Cry those tears of shame out. You have
no time to be ashamed, wait or avoid it.
You need to go forward and speak.
Empowered to become our own experts
to learn our language. We must become
responsible, no linguist, no universities,
no language policies to give your
language back. It’s up to us.
--Nancy Richardson, Aruk
It’s sad to be the last speaker of your
language. Please, turn back to your own and
learn your language so you won’t be alone
like me. Go to the young people. Let go of the
hate in your hearts. Love and respect
yourselves first. Elders please give them
courage and they will never be alone. Help
our people to understand their identity. We
need to publish materials for our people. To
educate the white people to us and for
indigenous people.
--Mary Smith, last speaker of Eyak
Indigenous Language Symposia Goals
1. To provide a forum for the exchange of
scholarly research on teaching American Indian
2. To bring together American Indian language
educators and activists to share ideas and
experiences on how to effectively teach American
Indian languages in and out of the classroom.
3. To disseminate though a monograph recent
research and thinking on best practices to
promote, preserve, and protect American Indian
Teaching Indigenous
Languages web site
pages were visited
over 45,000 times in
October 2003 with
visitors coming from
over 90 different
Visits to TIC Website from 81 Countries, May ‘03
U. Arab Emirates
Costa Rica
Czech Republic
Dominican Rep.
Hong Kong
Cayman Islands
New Caledonia
New Zealand
New Guinea
Russian Fed.
Saudi Arabia
Slovak Republic
Trinidad &Tobago
United Kingdom
United States
South Africa
“Believing in the language brings the
generations together.... If there’re any
seeds left, there’s an opportunity to
Leanne Hinton, Co-chair
Eleventh Annual Stabilizing
Indigenous Languages Conference,
University of California, Berkeley,
June 11-13, 2004

Northern Arizona University