What do you think of when you hear the words “Native American”?
If you live in the United States, chances are you picture cowboys and Indians, or Pocahontas, or red-painted men carrying a bow and arrow while saying, “How.” You may even think about headdressed teenagers at Coachella.
The reality is that all of these unfortunate tropes are just stereotypes. There isn’t a singular Native American identity—the US alone has 567 federally recognized tribes, as well as hundreds more unrecognized ones, each with their own history, culture and, in many cases, language. Did you know that more than 260 indigenous languages are spoken in the United States and Canada?
Why Learn an Indigenous Language?
In terms of global impact, learning an indigenous language is not the most practical. If you want to be an international businesswoman able to converse with clients in Europe, Africa and Asia, then learn languages with millions of speakers like Spanish, French, Arabic or Chinese.
If not, then try something a little different.
You should consider an indigenous language if:
You want a challenge. Unlike Romance and Germanic languages, indigenous languages do not share direct roots with English. This means that the vocabulary and grammar will be completely new—and the linguistic diversity, completely fascinating.
You want to set yourself apart in the job market. Everyone is learning European languages like Spanish, French, or even Arabic or Chinese (see above). Don’t you want to stand out?
You want to do work in that community. Maybe Standing Rock has woken you up to environmental racism, or maybe you’re outraged by the poor living conditions on some reservations. If you think you might want to work or do research with an indigenous community, speak to a member about learning their language.
You’re an indigenous person who wants to reclaim the language. Many indigenous languages were all but wiped out when the US government opened Indian boarding schools in 1860, intending to “kill the Indian, save the man.” These schools effectively kidnapped children from their communities and stripped them of their culture. Today, reclaiming the language is an act of resistance.
You’re just interested. If you have a passion for a language, then go for it! That’s a good enough reason.
So, which languages should you learn? I have a few suggestions.
Other Names: Tsalagi
Region: North Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas
Number of Speakers: 12,000
Size of Tribe: 316,000
More literature has been written in Cherokee than in any other Native American language. This literature includes dictionaries, Bible passages and a newspaper dating back to the 19th century.
Cherokee has its own syllabary, developed by Sequoyah (George Gist) in 1821. Before he created the syllabary, he was illiterate.
Cherokee often uses one word to express entire sentences. One word can contain the action, the object, the subject, the context and the location—all in just a few syllables! This is called a polysynthetic language.
Cherokee has six tones (high, highfall, rising, low, lowfall, falling), but younger speakers are radically simplifying the tones to make it easier to learn. One day, they may disappear altogether.
Resource to Learn It: Take language classes online at the official Cherokee website.
Other Names: Diné
Region: Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado
Number of Speakers: 169,000
Size of Tribe: 300,000 members
This is the most spoken Native American language in the US.
Navajo has four tones (high, rising, falling, low), marked by accents.
Navajo has a slow speech tempo; in other words, it is spoken more slowly than English.
In 1939, Navajo speakers tried to create and implement an alphabet, but it never caught on.
1977, Star Wars was translated into Navajo, becoming the first major motion picture to be translated into a Native American language!
Language: Central Alaskan Yup’ik
Other Names: West Alaska Eskimo
Region: Alaska, Canada, Siberia
Number of Speakers: 10,400
Size of Tribe: 34,000 members
Four different types of Yupik are spoken in Alaska: Central Alaskan Yup’ik (10,400 speakers), Central Siberian Yupik (1,200 speakers), Alutiiq (500 speakers) and Naukan Yupik (60 speakers).
A fifth dialect of Yupik, Serenik, went extinct in 1997.
Although these languages all stemmed from the same proto-language, they are unintelligible to each other; it’s like the difference between Spanish and French.
Like Cherokee, Central Alaskan Yup’ik builds out from verbs, so a single word can encapsulate an entire sentence. For example: Tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq means “She/he said again that she/he was not hunting caribou.”
Other Names: Chahta’
Region: Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee
Number of Speakers: 10,400
Size of Tribe: 300,000 members
Choctaw is very closely related to Chickasaw (spoken by 75 people), and some people consider the latter a dialect of the former.
The word “Oklahoma” comes from Choctaw; it means “red people.”
Choctaw has three different alphabets: Byington, Swanton and Modern. Most Choctaw speakers use a variation of Modern, indicating long vowels by doubling them.
Choctaw has three dialects.
Resource to Learn It: Start learning for free at the School of Choctaw Language.
Other Names: Washoe
Region: California-Nevada border
Number of Speakers: 20
Size of Tribe: 1,500 members
An immersion school began in 1994 to try to revive the language. It closed, but many of its former students are now teachers carrying the mantle.
Washo is a language isolate—that means it has no direct link to any other language! It’s not even related to the languages around it, which are Northern Paiute, Maidu and Sierra Miwok.
Because the speaking population is so small, there are no regional differences in dialect.
Washo borrows many words from English, such as k’indí (candy).
Washo uses “ʔ” as a letter, but it’s not a question mark! It’s a glottal stop, which sounds like the space between the vowel sounds in “uh-oh.”
Resource to Learn It: Jump in at the official Washo website!
Learning a Native American Language
Learning a Native American language might not have been at the top of your list, but with more than 250 languages, the possibilities are endless. Whether you want to connect with a local community or study fascinating systems of writing, consider looking at an indigenous language.
That means “have a good journey” in Navajo!