A Matter of Survival: A National Movement Is Afoot to Revitalize the Hundreds of Native Languages That Once Flourished across North America and the Hawaiian Islands

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To the average car, the words and sounds of Arapaho are from another world. But to Felicia Antelope, they're the sounds of home. Antelope is a student at the University of Wyoming and an Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation in the central part of the state. She is one of the dozen students in Wayne C'Hair's twice-weekly Arapaho language class.

Although Antelope, 35, grew up speaking her native language at home, she quickly forgot it after her elementary school teachers told her she had a problem.

"I was told I had a speech impediment," she says. "But I don't. I was speaking what they call 'lazy English,'" the basic English she heard on the reservation. As a result, "they stuck me in a speech class."

With her self-esteem damaged and her parents disappointed, the family stopped speaking Arapaho so she wouldn't be held back a grade.

Antelope's experience typifies that of American Indians--from upstate New York to the Hawaiian Islands--who have lost not only their native language but also their unique culture. But like thousands of other American Indians, she is recapturing her cultural and linguistic heritage.

"It gives me more of an understanding of my culture," she says of the Arapaho class.

It also has rekindled interest in the language among her family and friends, who also had all but forgotten the language.

"I got a really good reaction" Antelope says, about trying out words and phrases on her parents and grandparents. "They smile, but they will correct me in a heart beat. They know they have to speak slowly to me, but at least I try."

Antelope and C'Hair are part of a national movement to revitalize the hundreds of native languages that once flourished in the continental United States and Hawaii.

Experts say that because the majority of native language speakers are passing away, almost all of these languages could be gone by 2050.

While universities have been a reservoir for the study and research of native languages, much of the current movement revolves around the immersion programs now available in many native schools and communities. The idea behind the schools is to teach native language to children at an early age so that it is incorporated into their daily speech and--where feasible--their school instruction.

Bills that would fund these schools and programs are being considered by the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives, for example, passed House Bill 4766, sponsored by U.S. Pep. Heather A. Wilson, R-N.M., in September.

Reclaiming A Cultural Identity

To grow and flourish, these programs require native speakers who are also skilled language instructors. "In almost all of these programs, there is a university involved," says Dr. David Beaulieu, director of the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University.

To succeed, "you have to have partners and research scholars who are connected into this overall effort;' he says.

The sentiment is echoed by Dr. Christine Sims, an assistant professor in the department of language literacy and sociocultural studies with the University of New Mexico's College of Education.

"One of the things that we face right now is that when these languages aren't learned, everything that is bound together through language is lost," she says.

"It's not just the fact that we're losing languages, but the survival of cultures is at issue," says the native of Acoma Pueblo, a still-inhabited American Indian town dating back to the ninth century A.D. "In the Southwest, native language is still used for every aspect of tribal life. Our social networks and cultural systems are tied together through kinship, and language is part of that kinship."

The resurgence of interest in native languages comes none too soon, says Sims.

"The idea that we have to pay conscious attention now to teaching languages is something new to many tribal communities. …