Why Should We Keep Tribal Languages Alive?

Why Should We Keep Tribal Languages Alive?
Sonny Skyhawk
I can't stress enough the importance of retaining our tribal languages, when it comes to the core relevance or existence of our people. Our languages can teach us many things through daily use. Language can teach us respect, for ourselves and each other, our elders, women and most importantly, the things that allowed us to exist. Our children deserve nothing less than to have inherited their own language. You could argue that when a tribe loses its language, it loses a piece of its inner-most being, a part of its soul or spirit. That is how important and meaningful our languages are to us as the original inhabitants of this hemisphere.

Historically, our ancestors relied on our language to communicate with each other and sister tribes, and when we met other tribes, we utilized sign as an alternative language to communicate. Symbols or icons were also a source of documenting our history on stone surfaces or skins, known as Winter Counts, but languages were our main source of communicating with each other. You could lay blame for the loss of some of our languages on the Boarding Schools, where we were severely punished for speaking them, but that seems a weak excuse.

The truth is, it is our own fault and no one else's. Today, most tribal nations continue to struggle to retain their native tongues due to attrition, assimilation and lack of use, and sadly, some have lost them forever. Our tribal colleges and schools are our only line of defense or hope, when it comes to saving our languages at this point, because we have for the most part, refrained from speaking our languages fluently at home or amongst each other. Immersion classes have sprung up in some of our communities—but is it too late?

We have no choice; we have to assume it is not too late, but it is an ongoing struggle to keep our languages alive. My personal hope is that our present efforts will set the template for tomorrow, and that we can save our languages for those present today and those yet to be born. We need to retain and pass our tribal languages on to the next generations if we are to remain relevant as a people. We can make the comparison of losing our language to an explorer having lost his compass—and we cannot afford to lose our cultural compass, that which so clearly defines us. Speak your language if you know it, or learn it if you can, but do not let it go due to neglect. That is not who we are, or what we do, as a people. Now is the crucial time to protect and embrace your mother('s) tongue.

When it comes to native languages, the situation is simple: Use it or lose it.


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