Hi friends! Quick Question:
How many Native American languages do you think are spoken in the United States right now?
If you guessed 2, 10 or even 50 you’d be way off!
Did you know that there are approximately 150 Native American languages spoken in the US today alone? As a lover of languages, I have a special fondness in my heart for these beautiful languages that are often, unfortunately, overlooked.
That’s why I decided to hop on over to a few different reservations in the United States this month! I wanted to dive into the different cultures, have a few great conversations, and share what I find with you all!
First stop: The Navajo Nation!
The Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the USA, covering over 27,000 miles. It spans over the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. I love the American Southwest because of the abundance of natural beauty. Perhaps this is why the Navajo culture is so deeply rooted in a love for nature!
Many Navajo games and traditions revolve around their love for, and their relationship with, the land they inhabit. Many of their ceremonies and rituals are quite a thing to behold if you are ever lucky enough to witness them. While some may last a day or so, some chants may last nine days and dozens of people in the community participate!
My first stop was in Arizona at the Navajo language immersion school Diné Bi’ Olta’. I hopped up to a teacher as she waited for her students to arrive and began asking her about their mission…
“Many of us are worried that the Navajo language, Diné, will be forgotten and the language itself may disappear within the next 25 years or so,” she said sadly. “This school is our way of teaching the children, many of whom don’t speak Diné at home, about their culture and their language. I was raised in a traditional home and it gave me so much confidence to know about my heritage and identity. I want that for my students.”
“That’s amazing!” I chirped, looking around at many signs and paintings written in Diné. “I’ve heard that the Navajo tribe by far has the most speakers of any Native American language at 150,000. It’s amazing that you are working to get those numbers up even higher!”
“Yes, but unfortunately there are parents, even parents who speak Diné fluently, who prefer that their children speak English. They believe it better prepares them for ‘the real world’. I just want them to see they can do both.”
I thanked the teacher for her time and hopped off to my next destination. The second largest group of Native American language speakers brought me far north, all the way to Alaska! The Yup’ik people are within the Eskimo-Aleut language family and have three main subgroups:
- Alutiiq or Sugpiaq people of south-central Alaska
- The Central Alaskan Yupik people, who are the largest indigenous group in Alaska
- The Siberian Yupik people in western Alaska and Russia
These groups combined make Yup’ik the second most spoken Native American language in the United States. Even so, they are still less than 20,000 registered speakers!
Thankfully, the US Congress has acknowledged the need to prevent the decline of Native American languages. One of their language revitalization grants was awarded to the Village of Iguigig in southwestern Alaska. To learn more about Yup’ik and their language, I decided to head to there myself!
Since receiving the grant, Iguigig has started a cultural apprenticeship that pairs village elders with five youth. I hopped over to a local bait store to ask someone about their language revitalization.
“Oh yes! It’s so great, we have a three-year plan right now,” said a local woman proudly. “The first two years will focus on training the apprentices to become language instructors. Then during year three, we will open a preschool program that will initiate the intensive language instruction. With time we hope to have many community programs for Yup’ik training too!”
I asked if they knew where I could find a language instructor to chat with and they pointed to a building a few feet down the road. The village was pretty small!
“Hello!” I chirped. “I love all the headway you and your village have made with language revitalization. Can you tell me more?” Two young instructors shared their experience with me and then one of them told me about Yuarcuun, an online project created to help teach Yup’ik to anyone interested in learning.
“You see, it is often hard to teach our language to English speakers because the structure is very different. This website was created to help overcome that, it breaks down the meaning within words to find the meaning you seek. It is projects like this, and ours, that we hope helps the future generations carry on our language!”
It’s true that even I, a frog that can speak all languages, is in awe of just how much meaning can be packed into one small Yup’ik word!
The most commonly spoken Native American language in the Americas, outside of the United States, is Quechua in South America at about 7 million speakers! Quite a contrast huh? I may hop down there next and see who I can meet and practice my Quechua with! What about you? Which tribe lives near you and what language do they speak?
Until next time, be sure to jump to our other post to learn all about the brief history of Native American languages in the US.