We don’t know for sure how many distinct Indian languages were spoken in North America at the beginning of the European invasion. The estimates range from as few as 350 to as many as 750. American Indian language extinction over the past five centuries has been fairly rapid. While it is common to speak of language loss, it is really more a matter of language genocide: the deliberate destruction of Native languages.
In 1751, a missionary in Massachusetts claimed that the problem in converting the Indians to Christianity was that the children were not learning English. He said of Indian language:
“their own barbarous languages being exceeding barren, and unfit to express moral and divine things”
By learning English language hymns, the children would:
“renounce the courseness and filth and degradation of savage life, for cleanliness, refinement and good morals.”
For much of its history, the governmental policies of the United States have discouraged the speaking of Indian languages and, in some contexts such as that of the schools, have prohibited their use. As a result, there have been fewer places where the indigenous languages could be freely spoken. For many Indian languages, the primary place where they are used can be considered as ceremonial.
In 1881, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote:
“The Indian must be made to understand that if he expects to live and prosper in this country he must learn the English language, and learn to work.”
In 1887, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered all schools on reservations to give all instruction in English. He wrote:
“The intention is to prevent the waste of valuable time by Indian children in schools, in learning a barbarous tongue which is not comprehensive enough to embrace civilization or to comprehend it, and to utilize that time in school in learning the language of the country of which they are about to become citizens-a language in which not only the scriptures can be read, but all the extensive literature of the world.”
In clarifying this order, he added:
“The first step to be taken toward civilization toward teaching the Indians the mischief and folly of continuing in their barbarous practices, is to teach them the English language.”
While Native American languages helped the United States win World War II, following the war, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs once again reinforced the prohibitions against the use of Native languages in government schools and offices.
There are two phases to language change: language shift and language loss. Language shift for American Indian languages occurred during the reservation era as the people became bilingual in English as well as their tribal language. The tribal language continued to be the language of enculturation and socialization. Language loss begins when the children acquire English as their first language and the process of enculturation and socialization is accomplished primarily through English. During this phase, people will indicate that they can understand the Native language, but they do not speak it well or are unable to express themselves fluently in it.
A language is said to be moribund when there are fewer speakers under the age of twenty-five. When children speak a language it cannot disappear. In order to make Indian children stop speaking Indian languages, the American government removed them from their families and taught them that their language was evil, dirty, and inferior to English.
At least 70 Indian languages ceased to be spoken before any documentation could be made of them. By the 1960s, it was estimated that there were 175 Indian languages still being spoken north of Mexico. Of these languages, 136 had fewer than 2,000 speakers and 34 had fewer than 10 speakers. By 2007, it was estimated that only 154 Indians languages were still being spoken and that half of these were spoken only by elders. At the present time, it estimated that there are 46 Indian languages which are still being spoken by significant numbers of children.
Retention of the native language is an important issue for many tribes. There many Native American communities today which have language programs to try to teach their languages to children. As a consequence there are on many reservations programs which are intended to maintain the language. In communities in which the children no longer speak the native language, the goal is language revival in which the Indian language is taught as a second language. By 1986 there were 98 language projects involving 55 different Indian languages. There was an enrollment of more than 14,000 students in these programs. By 2006, there were 62 native languages being taught in 101 programs in 24 states and provinces.
In Oklahoma today, Indian languages can be used to satisfy state school credit requirements: they qualify as “world” languages. This means that Indian language classes can be used to satisfy requirements rather than just counting as electives. Five Oklahoma tribes have language revival programs: Delaware, Kaw, Miami, Seneca, and Wyandotte. In Oklahoma, there are an estimated 9,000 Cherokee speakers and 6,000 Muscogee Creek speakers. Among the 14,000 Comanche, it is estimated that there are only 50 to 75 fluent speakers.
Navajo is often cited as one of the strongest Indian languages in North America. While many Navajo still speak their language, a recent survey shows that only 5% of the school-aged children on the reservation speak the language fluently. In an attempt to counter this language loss, many elementary school classes on the reservation are now offering immersion classes in Navajo. In Window Rock, Arizona, it was found that Indian children who began school in Dine (Navajo) and learned English as a second language performed almost two grade levels above their peers who started school in English.
There are about 20,355 speakers of Dakota in the United States and Canada. On the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota, there are only 120 fluent speakers out of a tribal population of 4,435. All of the Spirit Lake fluent speakers are elderly. In order to retain the language, people meet in the school gym every other Tuesday for soup and conversation in Dakota.
In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Languages Act which declared “a national policy of respect for Native American languages and encouragement of their continued vitality.” According to the Act:
“the right of Native Americans to express themselves through the use of Native American languages shall not be restricted in any public proceeding, including publicly supported education programs.”
In 1997, the Indigenous Language Institute began to put an emphasis on the revitalization of Indian languages, not just their preservation. With new technologies, such as computers, and working with Native communities, languages can be revitalized as a part of daily life.
A survey of tribal leaders by Indian Country Today in 2000 found that only 7% could speak their Indian language fluently and 16% reported that they could understand it when it is spoken.
In 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 381,000 Indians spoke a Native language at home, with 178,000 of these speaking Navajo.