The U.S. has spent more money erasing Native languages than saving them

As tribes fight to save their languages from extinction, has the government done enough?


Students practice counting to ten in Quapaw. Their teacher, Ardina Moore, is the last living speaker of the language.
Laurie Sisk/The Joplin Globe

Ricky Duvall’s first language was Cherokee. His mom spoke Cherokee; his grandparents spoke Cherokee; his siblings and cousins all spoke Cherokee. When he was growing up in Lyons Switch, Oklahoma, everyone around him spoke Cherokee. 

But when Duvall went to kindergarten in the mid-1970s, everyone spoke English. As one of the few Cherokee-speaking kids in his class, he was told by his teachers to stop. At the time, he says, they believed Cherokee bilingual students weren’t as smart and would fall behind students who spoke only English — a theory that research has since proven unfounded. When Duvall spoke his own language, his teacher kept him inside for recess. He remembers being 6 years old, watching the other kids play through the window. 

So Duvall worked hard to be a good student and speak English, and only English. First at school, then at home, and eventually everywhere. And like thousands of other Cherokee-first language speakers of his generation, he lost his language.

“Speakers under the age of 40 are few and far between,” Duvall says today. “It was everywhere when I was a kid. ... We’re losing it.”

There are roughly 2,000 fluent Cherokee speakers alive today, and most are over the age of 60.  In 2018, the Cherokee Nation allocated nearly $6.2 million to its language programs, including child and adult immersion programs, translation, online classes, a radio show and more. Last month, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.  announced that an additional $1.5 million would be dedicated to language-program operating costs annually over the next five years, along with a $5 million capital investment in a new language center. That funding boost was signed into law last week. (Disclosure: I serve as an apprentice in the Nation’s Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program.) Despite this effort, the tribe is losing fluent speakers at a rate more than 10 times higher than it produces second-language learners. 

In 2018, only 47 language projects received funding — just 29% of all requests, leaving more than two-thirds of applicants without funding, according to ANA.

According to Ethnologue, of the 115 Indigenous languages spoken in the U.S. today, two are healthy, 34 are in danger, and 79 will go extinct within a generation without serious intervention. In other words, 99% of the Native American languages spoken today are in danger. Despite the Cherokee Nation’s efforts, the Cherokee language (ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ) is on that list.

There are 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States, and most are battling language extinction. Since 2008, thanks in part to the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), through a competitive grant process, has allocated approximately $12 million annually to tribes working to preserve their languages. In 2018, only 47 language projects received funding — just 29% of all requests, leaving more than two-thirds of applicants without funding, according to ANA. The Bureau of Indian Education, the Department of Education’s Department of Indian Education and the National Science Foundation allocated an estimated additional $5.4 million in language funding in 2018, bringing the grand total of federal dollars for Indigenous language revitalization last year to approximately $17.4 million. Compared to how much the United States spent on exterminating Native languages, that sum is a pittance. 

At the height of the Indian boarding school era, between 1877 and 1918, the United States allocated $2.81 billion (adjusted for inflation) to support the nation’s boarding school infrastructure — an educational system designed to assimilate Indigenous people into white culture and destroy Native languages. Since 2005, however, the federal government has only appropriated approximately $180 million for Indigenous language revitalization. 

In other words, for every dollar the U.S. government spent on eradicating Native languages in previous centuries, it spent less than 7 cents on revitalizing them in this one.

“The funding stream is so minuscule considering the breadth of need and the number of languages that are falling into the endangered category,” said Christine Sims (Acoma Pueblo), associate professor of educational linguistics at the University of New Mexico. “It's literally just a drop in the bucket.”

After the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, the Cherokee Nation re-established itself as a sovereign nation in “Indian Territory,” or present-day Oklahoma. During that time, the tribe created a bilingual public education system. When the tribe governed its own schools, students learned everything from Latin to algebra in Cherokee. In the 1880s, Cherokee students had a higher literacy rate — in Cherokee — than their white neighbors in Arkansas and Texas.

When the Cherokee Nation and four other tribes in Oklahoma were forced to go through allotment in the early 1900s — a process in which their treaty territory was divided up into individual, privately owned parcels later opened for white settlement — the government began its takeover of tribally run school systems through the Curtis Act of 1898. John D. Benedict, superintendent of schools in Indian Territory during the transition, deplored the schools’ priorities and in an 1899 letter complained about educators speaking to their students in Native languages and female students studying mathematics instead of learning domestic skills and housekeeping.

Native students’ attendance plummeted. In the Choctaw Nation, attendance in rural schools fell by 43% between 1892 and 1907, and college attendance dropped to zero. Eufaula Harjo, a Creek leader at the time, said, “We were proud of our schools, and our children went to them until the white man came in and crowded us out and took our schools away from us.”

Over the tribes’ protest, the educational infrastructure they had built was seized by the United States and turned into an English-only system where Native children were punished for speaking their own languages. Such punishment continued in rural Oklahoma into the 1970s.

During that same time period — the early 1900s — Cherokee children were also sent to Chilocco, an Indian boarding school on the Oklahoma-Kansas state line. The model, pioneered by Gen. Richard Henry Pratt, a veteran of the “Indian Wars” and founder of the notorious Carlisle Indian School, was designed to assimilate Native Americans into white society and strip future generations of their culture. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, an estimated one-third of all Native children were forced to attend Indian boarding schools, according to a report prepared for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. 

When the U.S. created Indian boarding schools, the goal was to save money. Then-Secretary of Interior Henry Teller estimated that assimilating Indians would cost only a fraction of the ongoing military conflict with tribes. The children at Indian boarding schools, which were chronically underfunded, often lacked basic food and medical care. To help fund the schools, children were rented to local townspeople for unpaid labor. Still, the U.S. government allocated exponentially more money to Indian boarding schools than it has spent since then on reversing their effects.

One of the many tribes fighting to save their language today is the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma. Two years ago, a perfect storm caused the abrupt closure of their adult language immersion program: A fluent speaker passed away and the tribe’s Administration for Native Americans grant dried up after two rounds of funding. According to ANA staff, ANA grantees can receive up to six consecutive years of funding but are then required to sit out for three. “That's not enough time to grow a new generation of language speakers,” says Christine Sims. The Sac and Fox still run community classes, but no programs to build fluent speakers. Of the tribe’s roughly 3,700 citizens, few than five fluent speakers are still alive, all of them over the age of 80, according to Sac and Fox Language Director Katie Thompson. But while some tribes become ineligible or are denied funding, many smaller tribes lack the capacity to even apply. 

In 2018, Mosiah BlueCloud, the director of the Kickapoo Language Program, was furloughed after the tribally funded initiative ran out of money. BlueCloud doesn’t know when, or if, the program will begin again, and the tribe doesn’t have a grant writer. “I was trained as a teacher. I can teach all day long,” said BlueCloud. “But as far as grant writing goes, it's just beyond my scope.”

Ardina Moore shows Noah Yazzie, left, and Emma Eppler, right, how to play a dice game during Quapaw Tribal Youth Language and Cultural Preservation Camp.
Laurie Sisk/The Joplin Globe

In the northeastern corner of Oklahoma, the town of Quapaw is the headquarters of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma — “O-gah-pah” in their language, a word that translates to “downstream people”.

At 88 years old, Ardina Moore is the last living speaker of Quapaw. To Moore, there is a connection between language and culture: “You can’t have one without the other,” she tells me. Without a grant or any other kind of funding, Moore gathers a few Quapaw families every Tuesday night at the tribe’s museum. Over sandwiches and Kool-Aid, she teaches students the names of animals and foods and how to pray in their language. One family attends every week despite living two hours away: a mother, daughter and grandmother. 

“When I am gone,” says Moore, “I don’t know who is going to be able to do this.”

Given the deliberate role the U.S. government played in pushing Native languages to the brink of extinction, what is its responsibility to support Indigenous language revitalization today? Whatever the debt may be, the U.S. is far away from providing the funding to tribes necessary to prevent a wave of language extinction. Instead, tribes are competing with each other for funding that is a mere fraction of what the U.S. was willing to pay for their possible eradication.

Last December, Ricky Duvall graduated from an adult Cherokee language immersion program. He spent eight hours a day, five days a week for two years, relearning his first language. For the first time since he was a child, Duvall can speak to his family in ᏣᎳᎩ. “What do you think makes us Cherokee? It’s our language,” he says.

One day last summer, Duvall was driving his mother to Tulsa for a doctor’s appointment. They started talking to each other in Cherokee. 

“I would say a bit of Yoneg (English); she would say, ‘Ꮩ ᎮᎵ ᏣᎳᎩ ᏂᏫ ᏍᎩᎾᎾ’ — how do you think you would tell me that in Cherokee? And then I would try to talk to her.” 

And for the first time since he was a child, he did. 

Ricky Duvall, with his parents by his side, accepts his certificate of graduation from the Cherokee language program.
Will Chavez/Cherokee Phoenix

Rebecca Nagle is a writer, advocate and citizen of Cherokee Nation living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Follow @rebeccanagleEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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