Native American tribes gather to kickstart International Decade of Indigenous Languages

2022 marks the beginning of the United Nations’ International Decade of Indigenous Languages.

In an effort to launch the international celebration of indigenous languages and advocacy for indigenous peoples’ right to use and revitalize their languages freely, the Cherokee Nation hosted a gathering of tribal nations throughout the United States last week. Native American tribes from all across North America gathered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to discuss strategies for language preservation and revitalization.

The gathering comes at a particularly pivotal time for Native American language revitalization efforts — in the last couple of years, the US government has approved several measures to boost revitalization efforts, including the development of a Native American Language Resource Center in Tahlequah and investments in revitalization projects.

“We are directing more of our Nation’s resources for housing, for health care, for safety net services towards our fluent speakers because we know this daunting fact — we have 2,000 fluent speakers left,” said Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, according to local news agency the Cherokee-Phoenix. “Most of them are elders. We know the greatest enemy of the Cherokee language right now is the passage of time and the fragility of human life.”

Prior to European colonization, the Americas were home to several hundred indigenous languages, most of which are now critically endangered or dormant. Of the few Native American languages that are spoken by more than a million speakers, none of them are native to the territories of the United States, and are predominantly used in South and Central America. 

The situation for indigenous languages in the United States is particularly grave — Navajo, the most widely spoken indigenous language within US territory, is spoken by less than 200,000 people. The Cherokee-Phoenix reports that there were roughly 350 languages spoken on modern-day US territory prior to arrival of European colonists; that number has since dwindled down to 115, and more than half of those languages are projected to lose their entire population of native speakers within the next 20 years. 

That is, those languages will likely disappear if no action is taken to boost revitalization efforts.

In the coming decade, the UN plans to provide indigenous peoples with the support needed to preserve and revitalize their native languages. The UN has outlined several goals and plans to empower indigenous peoples in preserving their languages and has appointed a global task force to aid in preservation projects. Ultimately, the next decade will be critical in reversing the damages done to indigenous languages worldwide and ensuring a robust future for these languages.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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