Feb 13, 2015 - #LoveYourLanguage, By Emmy Scott and Damian Webster


There is a phenomenon called “the bystander effect,” when there is a victim in need of help, the more bystanders there are, the less likely it is that any of them will actually help.

This is how we have begun to understand language revitalization efforts. One language dies every 14-17 days in the world. There are approximately 135 to 155 Native languages still in use in North America, and only 20 of those languages are spoken by all age groups. The remaining languages are severely endangered, and the reason for that is the children are not speaking the language. Despite this, most people are doing nothing on their own to help save them. We are bystanders waiting for others to do it for us.

We can talk about how our parents never taught us the language as children. Though as adults, we can no longer use our parents as our scapegoat. We must take responsibility for our lives and our learning. At the rate our languages are dying, there is no time to be wasted. We must go the extra mile to obtain language materials and meet knowledgeable people who can help when we have questions. We know the difficulties of this, as we are living away from our home communities. As Laura Jagles says in the documentary The Young Ancestors, “We have to be in desperation mode every day, or the language will die.”

Language is tied to identity, and here is an example. There are many who grew up being told they are Indian. This is the identity many were taught when distinguishing themselves from other races. Sometimes we heard people “speak Indian”. But when you learn your language, you end up learning you are not Indian. You learn you are Kanien’kehaka (people of the flint), Ani’yun’wiya (the principle people), Wampanoag (people of the first light), Apsaalooke’ (Children of the large beaked bird), or Anishnaabeg (the people). You also learn that you don’t “speak Indian”, you speak Onödowaga:’ gawë:nö’, Diné Bizáád, Anishishnaabemowin, or Dakóta Iyapi. HoChunks are “People of the Big Voice” or “People of the Sacred Language.” Hence, the HoChunk identity as a people cannot be separated from their language. This is true throughout; our languages are what make us unique and what make us whole.

One of the biggest hurdles mentioned by many language advocates is people’s lack of desire to learn. We can make all the books we want, give all the free classes and touch screen apps, but if nobody is willing to put in the time to learn, we are just treading water. The problem is that we do not see our Indigenous languages as affecting our everyday lives. We have begun to view our languages in the same light as a hobby or watching television shows. It is something to do if we have free time.

This is the wrong way to view language learning. Learning our Indigenous languages is more comparable to being in a relationship. Languages are dying because we are not treating them as if they are alive. It is not a passive process. It requires dedication and commitment. When in a relationship, we are not only focused on what we can get out of it, but also what we can give back. A relationship is something that you must work on every single day. There will be good days and bad. Sometimes we will be so frustrated that we want to bang our heads against a wall. However, when you are in love, it does not matter how difficult the journey is because the rewards are that much sweeter.

So let’s all fall in love with our Ianguages, that deep seeded kind of love with roots inside of your soul that grows and blossoms. Sometimes while listening to the language of the ancestors it can feel like a long lost memory. Somewhere within us we can feel what they are saying. To truly embrace learning your language like anything else it helps if you love it. Start to love the way a guttural sound rises and reverberates in the back of your throat. Begin to love the melody of words and have fun saying them. Appreciate the complexity of certain words that go far beyond English translations and Western philosophy.

We do it because our great grandmothers were the last fluent speakers in our family. We do it because the generations after never got much command of the language. We do it because we only knew a few words growing up. We do it because we want our children to know more than we did. The language will also give them a better sense of their identity.

We do it because there isn’t anyone standing over us ready to put a needle through our tongue, whack us with a ruler, or punish us for learning and speaking our language.

We do it because our Indigenous languages are relationships to our past, our present, and our future. We do it for love.

The Indigenous Language Challenge 2014 on Facebook was a good starting point, which asked participants to speak in their Indigenous language for 20 seconds and post their videos. Our challenge, Love Your Language, is to pledge to practice your language at least 20 minutes everyday this year starting now. Post your pledge to social media with #LoveYourLanguage and continue to use through this year to share your journey.

Emmy Scott (Winnebago/Spokane/Arikara) is from the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska and is a first year law student at Michigan State College of Law with a passion for Indigenous rights. Twitter: @EmmyNawjoopinga




Damian Webster is Onödowa’ga’ from Buffalo, NY and studied at Haskell University and the University of North Dakota. He also studies Seneca and Oneida language, Haudenosaunee history and culture, and resides in Oneida, WI. Twitter: @onondowaga2

Last Real Indians