On Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, the Northern Arapaho tribe is struggling to preserve its language.
As with many Native American tribes, Arapaho children were forced into boarding schools started in the late 1800’s in an effort to make them more “American.” Of course, that’s really pretty ironic if you think about it, considering that their ancestors colonized America thousands of years before the ancestors of the people who tried to “Americanize” them even knew this continent existed.
However, the goal of the boarding schools was to make Native Americans give up their culture and be more like the “civilized” English-speaking whites.
At the boarding schools, traditional Native American hairstyles were forbidden. So was the Arapaho language-students were punished harshly for speaking it. These practices persisted even until the 1940’s and ‘50s. As a result, there are no native Arapaho speakers under the age of 55. Knowledge of the Arapaho tongue has basically skipped a generation, although adults are learning it now as a second language. The New York Times reports that in an attempt to save the language, the Arapaho are opening a school for children where classes will be taught only in Arapaho. At first, the school will teach pre-Kindergarten to 1st grade, but will start taking in progressively older students over time if everything goes according to plan.
Hopefully, the immersion environment provided by the schools will create a new generation of Arapaho speakers. The American government’s attempt to extinguish Native American culture has done some serious damage and left many tribes with a legacy of poverty and social problems.
One interesting tidbit mentioned in this New York Times article was that fluency in native tribal languages has been tied to better academic achievement in Native American kids.