Though language is something we use every day, many Americans do not have to think about where their language came from, why they use it or what it would be like to be incapable of communicating with people around you. The common use of English throughout the United States has come at the expense of erasure of many Native American languages spoken before European colonizers arrived on American soil.
Daryl Baldwin, a member of the Miami tribe, has worked for over 30 years at revitalizing his tribal language of Myaamia after its last native speakers died around the middle of the 20th century. Baldwin recently gave a lecture at Boise State.
“When I was young and fresh out of school, the rhetoric at the time, and still is unfortunately, to some degree, was this constant message of death and dying languages,” Baldwin said.
There are indeed extinct languages that have vanished along with their cultures. However, many Native American languages have a significant group of people who are interested in relearning their heritage language in order to preserve the culture that they often struggle to stay in touch with through the filter of a colonial language such as English, according to Baldwin.
“Yes, it’s not going to be the same as the past, but it’s going to be a language, and a language is going to play a significant role in the ongoing perpetuation of the tribal nation. Embedded within that language is the most efficient and effective way to transmit culture,” Baldwin explained.
Baldwin said that having to revitalize language and culture is an instrumental element in the healing process of people who were forcefully assimilated to European culture on their own homelands.
“This is an intergenerational process. It takes a long time before you can really start to see the fruits of the labor, or the investment we made twenty years ago,” Baldwin said.
Children’s exposure and connection to their culture has been linked to greater curiosity and engagement with the world around them according to studies done by teams Baldwin is involved in.
“If [children]enter a learning environment where their language and culture is valued and supported they perform better academically,” Baldwin said. “It strengthens their notions of identity, they become more secure of themselves, and they become more engaged at the tribal level.”
Baldwin also referenced the Miami tribe’s work with Miami University in Oklahoma where, after implementing language and culture classes on campus, Miami affiliated students’ graduation rates shifted from 40% in 2003 to nearly 90% today.
Baldwin’s visit was particularly exciting for Dr. Tim Thornes who teaches linguistics at Boise State. Thornes helped bring Baldwin to campus, and says that he seemed a very relevant speaker given that the United Nations named 2019 the international year of indigenous languages.
“[Baldwin’s] been well-known in language revitalization circles for quite a while because of his family’s efforts starting thirty years ago almost to introduce the language in their home,” Thornes said.
Thornes, who studies Northern Paiute, a Native American language spoken in an area encompassing Boise Valley and southward to Reno, Nevada, said that Native Americans often relate that speaking their native language is practice of sovereignty, and an important way for many people to connect with their ancestors.
“I’ve read studies from Canada that looked at suicide rates,” Thornes said. “They found that suicide rates were reduced to regional norms from 6 times the regional norms in communities that had active language and cultural preservation and revitalization programs.”
Thornes reiterated that ultimately preserving and revitalizing languages can have real and measurable impacts on communities that have wavered in connection to their traditions due to colonization.
President of Linguistics Society of Boise State Brenna Leonard said that the importance of this issue attracts the interest of many majors. Leonard, a fifth-year computer science major, noted that linguistics and programming are often intertwined.
“Getting to hear Daryl talk about his work with revitalization was heavily tied in with language documentation,” Leonard said. “There’s a lot of opportunities for computational linguistics to make a splash in the field of language documentation and revitalization. From a personal perspective that was like ‘Woah, that’s pretty cool. That’s something I could maybe see myself helping with.”
Both Leonard and Thornes said they were happy that Baldwin took the time to visit Boise State to spread the word about his work that is often misunderstood by people who have not experienced the cultural erasure that tribes like the Miami have.
Though every language and culture is dramatically different, the work of people like Baldwin inspires others to pick up the torch and begin an investigation into cultures that otherwise may have continued to lay dormant.