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Stories to histories: Preserving indigenous languages

By Antara Gangwal December 15, 2022

Dana Lim Art

Language is a fundamental part of culture. Written, spoken and gestural language are critical to preserving the stories of a people, transforming them into histories that will live on forever. When languages are lost, these histories are lost as well. This is true of many American Indigenous languages, which are at risk of disappearing without language conservation efforts.

Historically, about 500 Indigenous languages classified into around 60 language families—similar dialects that originate from a common language—spanned North America, per The National Museum of the American Indian. Many of these languages contain unique grammatical structures; for example, according to the language learning site Berlitz, languages in the Algonquian family do not require nouns to form complete sentences. Many also exhibit polysynthesis—the expression of complex ideas as single, long words with a root verb and attached prefixes that indicate subject and object.

The umbrella term “North American Indigenous languages” includes Hand Talk, a group of sign languages used by both deaf and hearing indigenous people. As Vox states, Hand Talk was used by many tribes to tell stories and perform ceremonial rituals. A prominent example of Hand Talk is Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), formed from 4,000 basic signs representing words and ideas rather than letters—like in American Sign Language (ASL). In the past, PISL was integral to communication between tribes that spoke different languages, as it was understood by native groups across the Great Plains region.

However, the National Congress of American Indians declared Native American languages to be in a state of emergency in 2010; World Atlas reports that less than 170 remain today. Additionally, only a few dozen individuals are fluent in PISL, according to Vox. These languages were lost to forced assimilation of indigenous people into white American society.

Oral storytelling is how many indigenous people preserve their traditions and legends, as Great Falls Tribune Panelist Rylee Mitchell states. Many tribes possess unique oral storytelling traditions, such as throat singing—a form of music from the Inuit tribe. As Inuk throat singer Shina Novalinga describes on BBC News, throat singers, often women, perform facing one another in pairs. They draw deep, guttural sounds from their diaphragm, belly and throat, with one initiating a rhythm and the other following. According to The New Yorker, throat singing originated as a lighthearted competition among Inuit women, who competed to imitate the sounds of nature. Yet for those like Novalinga and Tanya Tagao—a Canadian Inuk who creates throat singing albums—the performance is simultaneously an art form and way to embrace tradition, after it was deemed satanic and suppressed by Christian missionaries in the 1900s. Novalinga and Tagao recognize the importance of preserving the tradition; it expresses a distinctive soundscape that cannot be translated into other means of communication.

Similarly, while Vox explains that Hand Talk influenced the formation of ASL, PISL does not perfectly translate into ASL. As a language developed by white Americans, ASL reflects Eurocentric ideas about gender and culture; the sign for “boy” is the tipping of a top hat, and the sign for “girl” mimics the action of tying sun bonnet strings. Additionally, the names of native tribes need to be spelled out phonetically in ASL while in Hand Talk, a single sign represents each tribe.

“Communication through language carries connotations and nuances that are lost when translated; similar concepts can signify extremely different ideas in different cultures,” Andrea Dashe, Foreign Language and Social Studies Departments, said.

Governments are taking action to sustain these languages. The Native American Languages Act was passed in 1990, permitting schools to teach indigenous children in their own languages. The California School Boards Association reports that this year, the Yurok Tribe received a grant of $350,000 from the U.S. Office of Indian Education to develop its Growing Learners and Sustaining Yurok Language program. Using this, the tribe will further expand its Native American language programs in four high schools in northern California.

“In my Ethnic Studies class, we learned about indigenous peoples’ histories in North America, and how their culture and languages are disappearing. Students must learn about these languages and advocate for government action to preserve them, which can be accomplished through protests and petitions,” Freshman Sophia Wu said.

Indigenous Language Institute predicts that only 20 Native American languages will remain by 2050, but this loss can be combated through teaching these languages, especially to younger generations. By preserving indigenous languages, communities can help ensure that the histories they carry will endure as well.


About the Contributors

Antara Gangwal

Staff writer

Antara Gangwal is a sophomore at Leland High School and is a staff writer for The Charger Account. Her hobbies include reading, watching films, and listening to music.

Dana Lim


Dana Lim is a sophomore at Leland High School and an artist for The Charger Account. During her free time, she likes to binge-watch tv shows or take naps.

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