Indigenous Language and Culture Backdrop and Educational Revitalization Efforts

I was struck by the discussion regarding the power of indigenous languages in Teresa McCarty’s (2005) journal introduction entitled “Indigenous Epistemologies and Education – Self-Determination, Anthropology, and Human Rights.” In the introductory article, McCarty (2005) explains that while indigenous populations may comprise a small percentage of current, world demographics, they do, however, disproportionally possess most of the world’s languages.  She demonstrates this point through the employment of statistics.  McCarty (2005) states that although, “indigenous peoples comprise 4 percent of the world’s population…they speak 4,000 to 5,000 of the world’s more than 6,000 languages” (McCarty, 2005, p. 2).

These languages are threatened by the legacy of colonized diaspora that negatively impact indigenous identities.  Diaspora jeopardizes knowledge and epistemologies that are directly connected that are autochthonous, or indigenous, to specific peoples and lands.  The core of these knowledges is understanding ways of life within particular locations and circumstances through.  These knowledges are orally transmitted to younger generations of indigenous peoples as a means of perpetuating traditional ways of knowing and perceiving the world.  This traditional and orally linguistic transmission of cultural ways of knowing is violently disrupted by the linguistic genocide of indigenous peoples.  Therefore, as language and traditional knowledge is inextricably fused, discourse about indigenous self-determination and education cannot occur without active consideration and exploration of the both elements.

More specifically, McCarty (2005) argues, that the “shift toward English represents a shift away from the Indigenous” (p. 3).  However, the ramifications of a monolingual and resulting monocultural educational system limit the scope of knowledge, epistemologies, and worldviews transmitted to younger generations.  As a result, indigenous linguistic and cultural educational movements have begun to reclaim and propagate traditional ways of knowledge through language in schools.  This effort is bolstered by the ideology that perceives and respects the cruxes of language and self-determination.

Therefore, not only should language revitalization efforts include grassroots initiatives, but also those at all levels of education because loss of indigenous languages and the subsequent knowledge continue to threaten indigenous students’ academic achievement.  This connection and the result it renders is that the educational inclusion of indigenous epistemologies “can lead to a different kind of schooling experience and a different kind of learner” (McCarty, 2005, p. 4).  Indigenous languages, McCarty (2005) contends, belong in the very classrooms that have historically and systematically oppressed their use and transmission, and therefore further marginalize indigenous populations.  However, by including indigenous languages and knowledge in education, these traditional ways of knowing and perceiving the world can empower indigenous peoples and communities toward self-determination.

Indigenous language revitalization efforts in education are at the core of my research agenda, especially those implemented on reservations.  This article illuminated the interconnectedness of the concepts of language, knowledge, of the “power of place.” I completely agree with the argument that education should be the first step in initiating language revitalization efforts.  This is especially powerful due to the colonization and subjugation of indigenous peoples through the educational process.

However, as language is not extrinsic from other cultural aspects and ways of knowing, it should not be taught in isolation.  It is a means of transferring traditional, cultural knowledge.  Therefore, it should be taught as a tool through which cultural knowledge is transmitted.  Although there are many educational programs that attempt to instill linguistic and cultural knowledge, the one I most subscribe to is that of the mother-tongue immersion program.

The mother-tongue immersion program completely immerses children in the traditional, mother-tongue language throughout the entire of the school day in kindergarten.  The language is spoken by elders of the community as a means of exposing and encouraging students to use it, but also as a means of teaching traditional knowledge.  As the children progress throughout the grade-levels, the languages employed by the schools are 50% English and 50% mother-tongue.  The Maori have developed implemented this linguistic and cultural immersion program and have rendered positive results that have resulted in other, international schools to adopt similar programs (Reyhner, 2003).  The mother-tongue immersion program is theoretically supported by the information provided in McCarty’s article and is one that I would like to research further.

McCarty, T. (2005). Indigenous Epistemologies and Education — Self-Determination , Anthropology , and Human Rights. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 36(1), 1–7.

Reyhner, J. (2003). Native Language Immersion. In L. L. Jon Reyhner, Octaviana V. Trujillo, Roberto Luis Carrasco (Ed.), Nuturing Native Languages (4th ed., pp. 1–6). Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University. Retrieved from