Posted by on Sep 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

Let’s Put Our Hearts and Minds Together and Think in Your Original Language

By : Renee Holt

The impetus for this piece was inspired by my late grandmother who once stated (paraphrased and loosely translated into English), “when we no longer speak the language, we won’t be able to sing our songs and we will be just like white people…” – Clara Tsinigine Dine, 1910-2001.

As a Diné/Nimiipuu woman living in a modern world where living off the reservation has become necessary for school, I realize learning my languages requires a fierce desire. With the use of modern technology such as computer programs and the likes of social media and phone apps, language revitalization and preservation has been successful for Indigenous communities. The reality and state of Indigenous communities relative to languages is that they are dying. With the onslaught of popular media which inundates the minds of our future generations, it is challenging to redirect our Native youth to speak their languages when they have mainstream influences that don’t recognize our unique culture.

Without lamenting over the past too much, when we look at the present state of our Indigenous communities we can also see the residual effects of the government boarding schools that started with Carlisle Boarding School in 1879. The colonized education system disrupted our ancestral ways of living and punished our ancestors for speaking their languages. The disruption created a cultural rift among Indigenous communities that has remnant behaviors of unresolved historical grief trauma which is relative to post traumatic stress disorder. So much, that there are factions within tribal communities that have resulted in negative labeling such as “fort Indian” or “apple” among other socio behaviors such as substance abuse, domestic violence, suicide, and abuses that sent a ripple effect as a direct assault on Indigenous communities from the colonial settlers divide and conquer tactic. Ultimately, the “success” for the colonizer has been that our communities are divided. Without first hand experience, I can only imagine the confusion, frustration, and disdain for the boarding schools that my ancestors went through when all they wanted was to live as their ancestors had lived.

Student body assembled on the Carlisle Indian School Grounds.
Photo courtesy of


Although the federal assimilation policies of the 19th and 20th Centuries did not celebrate difference and actually terrorized Native youth with cultural genocide, the forced assimilation affected how our ancestors adapted to the changing times and how we as modern Indigenous people view the world today. It’s unfortunate that Indigenous languages are no longer spoken as a first language. With mainstream education systems rooted in colonization, Indigenous languages continue to be threatened into extinction.

Tribal language programs such as the one at Sitting Bull College where language staff who work in immersion also utilize modern technology shows that it is an exceptional tool for language preservation. With Tribal colleges and Tribal language programs that work tirelessly in language preservation, speaking our languages requires a concerted effort to speak and teach our languages using the traditional methods of communication which starts in our homes with our young. Sitting Bull College Language Instructor, Thipiziwin Young (Lakota), states, “I don’t buy that my People are downtrodden or that the white man gave my people this reservation to live on.  We were here since Creator put us here, we are still here, and we aren’t going anywhere.  My culture is alive and thriving.  It has survived terrible hardship but is still intact and growing.  Our language has never been silent, its spirit is tied to this land and it will be heard here.”


Today, with a generational gap regarding fluency and language instruction presenting challenges, especially with regard to parents seeking employment and education off the reservation, leaving family and language out of necessity is a struggle.  For those members of the community who struggle with not being able to participate in onsite language immersion, the use of modern technology can be a helpful tool.  However it presents itself, language preservation and revitalization is an individual responsibility.


Recently, a colleague commented about what it means to be an educated Native in this day and age.  Further stating that as Native people, if we only seek a whiteman’s education, it’s a crime to be educated without making the same earnest and sincere effort to learning our language.  “If our purpose is to get an education and forsake our Indigenous language, why should we be funded by Tribal dollars if language isn’t a requirement?”  As the discussion led us into identity and knowing the language of our ancestors, the conversation included Place Based Education and what that means, but also how Indigenous identity is rooted in knowing our language.  Without our languages, we are Natives dressed up like white settlers and an imitation of Indigenous identity.


As the words of my late grandmother resonated with me, the importance and value of knowing our language became eminent.  At the time my late grandmother spoke those infinite gems of turquoise wisdom, I was an 18 year old girl who had no conception of what adulthood entailed.  With ideals of what life should look like I was naïve and ignorant to the ways of colonization and did not know how I would serve my community.


Since that time, I have spent time learning about both my cultures and in the process was blessed with the honor of becoming a mother.  As a mother, I reflect back on words my brother Colby Tootoosis shared in that, “women birth nations.”  Today, I believe it is my responsibility to teach and share any and all cultural knowledge with my children.  My expectation is that they will reflect on the foundational knowledge that was birthed from our ancestors and practice an ancestral way of life.


As a Dine/Nimiipuu mother my desire to learn Nimiipuu’timpt’ki is rooted in wanting to translate prayers and explanations of our universe so that my children will know not only how to pray for themselves and our community, but to speak on how hunting, fishing, and gathering are important to our community.  The thought provoking concept of communicating with our ancestors is a call to action in finding our place when stressing “sovereignty” or demanding “treaty rights.”


Although an intermediate learner, I have struggled with certain words and explanations (as I have learned) that Indigenous languages don’t translate in the same way as colonized forms of thinking and communication occur.  Upon learning that the contexts of meaning from English into most Indigenous languages is not always possible to translate, what I have learned is that I “ought” to be breaking things down from an Indigenous perspective into English, instead the opposite occurs.  The unlearning process I’ve experienced was unsettling initially, however, since that time, the art of unlearning has proven to be a healthy challenge.


What I’m sharing is a classic example of how colonization has brainwashed our communities in how we think and approach learning within our Indigenous languages.  When we look at how colonization has been used to divide and conquer our communities, we will also be able to see that breaking us down and stripping us of foundational knowledge was indeed cultural genocide at it’s finest.  Our languages are inherently ours and passed down from generation to generation through ancestral ways of knowing.  If we are unable to speak our languages, how disconnected are we from our ancestors?


As a result of this revelation, I am a staunch advocate for Tribal colleges who work in language preservation and believe that only Indigenous people can save their languages.  Tribal colleges that have the staff and capacity to teach Indigenous languages are crucial.  Not only does it require fierceness from the individual to want to learn, but it also requires the help of dedicated staff and members of an Indigenous community.  Language revitalization is indeed a way of life that is necessary and an opportunity to reclaim our heritage.  I posit, what language programs are you familiar with and aware of that are happening in your local area or region, and how can we mobilize our efforts using modern technology?