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Teaching the native language of American indians

Colleges teach Native American languages to preserve their language and expand their culture’s influence
LANGUAGE LESSONS—Instructor Mary “Betsy” Bissell teaches a new Niagara U course that introduces students to Tuscarora, a dialect of the Iroquoian language spoken in western New York state.
LANGUAGE LESSONS—Instructor Mary “Betsy” Bissell teaches a new Niagara U course that introduces students to Tuscarora, a dialect of the Iroquoian language spoken in western New York state.

A handful of campuses teach Native American languages to support the efforts of local tribes to preserve their language and expand their culture’s influence on public education, film and other arenas.

This semester, Niagara University—located near the famous waterfall on New York’s Canadian border—introduced a sequence of three classes in Tuscarora, a dialect of the Iroquoian language spoken by the nearby Tuscarora Nation.

“You can’t really understand a culture without understanding its language,” says Chandra Foote, the university’s dean of education.

“The community can also come to understand the Tuscarora nation as cultural assets, as opposed to what the stereotyped perceptions are,” she adds.

A practical side to the classes also exists. Educators from the Tuscarora Indian School, part of the local Niagara Wheatfield Central School District, requested the university’s help in creating a state certification process for teaching indigenous languages (an effort all parties continue to work toward).

Another aim: Allow students who study Tuscarora in K12 to continue with the language in college.

Niagara hired part-time instructors from the Tuscarora Nation to teach the courses. “This isn’t Niagara University’s administrators coming in and saving the day,” Foote adds. “This was the Nation’s idea—they’re teaching it for us. They already teach it at their community center, but the students aren’t getting college credit for it.”

Across the country at Idaho State University, scholars preparing to teach Shoshone in the late 1990s had to come up with a writing system for a dialect—which lacked an alphabet—and then create a textbook.

About half the students who take the language classes—which count toward general education credits—are tribal members, says Christopher Loether, director of the university’s American Indian studies program.

Students who have become fluent at the university helped win support from initially resistant tribal members, who then used some of Idaho State’s teaching methods to open a dual-language, English-Shoshone elementary school on the reservation, where about half the population speaks Shoshone.

“We’ve had native students make movies in the language and we had one student publish a book of Shoshone poetry,” he says. “It has gotten younger people excited about the language. We even know of people texting each other in Shoshone.”

In Southern California and other parts of the country, tribes have used gaming revenue to support similar higher ed language programs. Loether says, “Tribes are investing money in their culture and their languages.”

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