“What Happened to My Language?” Working to Reclaim Indigenous Languages

Earlier this year we published A World of Indigenous Languages edited by Teresa L. McCarty, Sheilah E. Nicholas and Gillian Wigglesworth. In this post Teresa and Sheilah discuss how they came to participate in the global movement for Indigenous language reclamation.

Sheilah Nicholas remembers the rude awakening when, as an adult, her mother said to her, “When you were a child, you were fully Hopi,” referring to the fact that she was a first-language speaker of Hopi as a child. Teresa McCarty, a White scholar-educator, remembers a parallel moment when a Diné (Navajo) elder, referring to the legacy of colonial schooling, said to her, “If a child learns only English, you have lost your child.” Reflecting on this, Sheila and Teresa identify the point when their life trajectories came together and they became participants in a nascent global movement for Indigenous language reclamation.

Sheilah: The very first time I thought about language issues was in a pilot study I conducted for your class at the University of Arizona. I wanted to understand how a K-8 community school on the Hopi reservation was implementing their Hopi language program. At the time my focus was on Hopi language and literacy and the role of Hopi education practitioners as literacy specialists.

Teresa: That would be about the mid-1990s. At that time I was working with Diné teachers at a community school within the Navajo Nation. The teachers were Indigenizing their literacy curriculum. I had been working with this community for many years and we were starting to see a noticeable shift from Navajo to English among the children entering kindergarten.

Sheilah: In 1995, while there were still a large number of Hopi speakers across the reservation, in this particular community school the Hopi education practitioners were also observing a visible shift to English among their students.

These experiences inform our work together and individually in the field of Indigenous language revitalization and reclamation. For both of us, an important site of this work was the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI) at the University of Arizona, an international program to train educators and language practitioners in strategies to revitalize and promote the use of Indigenous languages across generations.

Sheilah: I was a graduate student at AILDI and found myself unable to integrate Hopi into my assignment. I asked my instructor, Akira Yamamoto, “What happened to my language?” He said, “It didn’t go anywhere. It’s deep inside you—you just need to pull it up.”

Teresa: Akira Yamamoto, Lucille Watahomigie (Hualapai) and Leanne Hinton cofounded AILDI in 1978, with long-time AILDI director Ofelia Zepeda (Tohono O’odham) joining shortly after. I had been working with them for several years. Each summer the Institute brings together Indigenous community members and educators, and non-Indigenous allies, in collaborative partnerships around language revitalization, documentation, and outreach.

Sheilah: AILDI became the catalyst for my current work.

Our stories are part of a larger story told in the pages of our edited volume with Gillian Wigglesworth of the University of Melbourne, A World of Indigenous Languages. Gillian has worked for many years with Australian Aboriginal communities on the languages Aboriginal children in remote communities learn, the complexity of their language ecologies, and how these interact with English once children enter the formal school system.

Our book exemplifies a movement we characterize with the “4 Rs”: resurgence, reclamation, revitalization, and resilience. From Aotearoa/New Zealand, to South Africa, the Yukon Territory, Western Australia, Latin America, Ojibwe and Hopi in the USA, Aanaar Saami in Finland, Limbu in Nepal, Nahuatl in Mexico, and the “world of Indigenous languages” in cyberspace, every chapter – authored or coauthored by an Indigenous scholar-activist – illuminates the vitalities of this movement.

In gathering these accounts, we are honored to present the diversity of pedagogical innovations and the persistence of this movement. These are not accounts about languages as abstract entities to be “preserved,” but rather a dynamic display of Indigenous voices being heard.

For more information about this book please see our website.

 

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