Language is Life

Lauren Stevens
January 24, 2024

Photo: Stop sign in Cherokee language, Cherokee Nation, by Uyvsdi, Wikimedia Commons

From Lauren Stevens, Language is Life

PBS Native Series

Language Is Life – Since time immemorial, indigenous peoples throughout the Americas have innovated ways to connect across generations ,cultures, and continents. Before 1492 there were over 300 Native languages spoken across North America. Today there are about 170. If nothing is done, linguists predict by 2050 there will be 20. Many Native communities believe when you lose language, you lose everything. But even in the face of these painful statistics, this risk of loss has served as a rallying cry across Native America – and an opportunity to seek new ways to persevere against extraordinary odds.

For over 500 years, America’s First People have fought to ensure their unique ways of speech could be preserved. Now, a renewed effort to revitalize traditional languages is unfolding across Native America. Language Is Life showcases the beauty of Native American communication, and how their voices continue to shape 15,000 years of world changing history. And the heroes who are applying 21st century technologies to save a core element of Native cultures from time immemorial and to inspire future generations.

On the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Manny Wheeler, is on a mission to dub Hollywood blockbusters in Navajo. At the drive-in theater of his newest project, Luke Skywalker’s face fills nearly the entire screen. It’s an iconic moment from Star Wars. And when Luke begins to speak in Navajo words ,cheers rise from the crowd. Manny’s work is revitalizing his community’s connection to their language and giving classic films like Fistful of Dollars new life as Navajo-language classics.

Rumors of a stunning find in northern Georgia lead historian Julie Reed of the Cherokee Nation and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Cultural Preservation Officer Beau Carroll to an ancient cave. As they enter and activate their multispectral imaging devices, they realize the rumors were true: a massive panel of Cherokee syllabary-writing from 1828 is inscribed on the cave walls - just a few years after this unique writing system was developed. Decoding the inscription helps them to uncover a secret history that resonates with the larger story of Cherokee resilience.

And in Passamaquoddy, northern Maine, fluent language speaker Dwayne Tomah launches a mission to recover Passamaquoddy songs from 19th century voice-recordings on wax cylinders that haven’t been heard for a century. He journeys to the Library of Congress and using new technological marvels alongside their expert audio team, recovers lost songs and words –which he brings back to the Passamaquoddy community.

Native heroes are using every tool to recover, revitalize, and restore their linguistic traditions, with efforts as diverse as they are inspirational. These communities are calling out and demanding to be heard, restoring their rich and diverse languages to the public square. And their successes are changing Native America and the world at large.

Photo by Uysdi, Wikimedia Commons