Federal grants can help keep some rarely spoken American Indian languages from disappearing, tribal and Indian education officials say.
Of about 500 American Indian languages that existed before European immigration to North America, only about 100 still exist and only 20 are spoken by American Indian children, says Ryan Wilson, president of the National Indian Education Association.
Wilson says the federal government discouraged the teaching of American Indian languages years ago in an attempt to force cultural assimilation, and so the government should lead steps toward undoing the damage.
“We’re not playing the role of victims. We don’t believe in that,” Wilson says. “But the U.S. government made the biggest investment in the destruction of the languages, and it should make a commensurate investment in helping to bring them back.”
He is supporting legislation in the U.S. Congress that would provide grants for “immersion schools” that would teach American Indian languages. In immersion schools, students learn traditional languages and are taught other subjects in those languages as well.
He estimated the bill would cost about $8 million annually. U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is a co-sponsor.
Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, which includes the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, says only eight people are still fluent in the Mandan language.
“If we don’t do this now, it will be gone,” he says. “These speakers are passing on. When they pass, they take a wealth of knowledge with them.”
Hall and Wilson spoke during a summer institute on American Indian education, held this week at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck.
United Tribes President David M. Gipp says there is evidence that language programs can help students improve their overall academic performance.
— Associated Press
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