Outline of Indigenous Language Revitalization History in the United States

Michael Odegaard
November 15, 2022

When there were only an estimated few hundred remaining speakers of Hawaiian language in 1983, members of the ʻĀinahau o Kaleponi Hawaiian Civic Club in Orange County, CA, along with the other associated Hawaiian Civic Clubs, were invited to contribute funds to help purchase a school bus to take young children to a park in Waimea, Kauaʻi to gather under the protection of a banyan tree where they would be immersed in Hawaiian language each weekday. At the time, no public buildings were available to the Native Hawaiians due to the June 8, 1896 law signed by Sanford B. Dole, President of the Republic of Hawaiʻi (Act 57, Sec. 30) that prohibited Hawaiian language to be the medium and basis of instruction in all public and private schools. The “language nest” (pūnana leo) began its indigenous language medium instruction in 1984, and the linguicidal law was finally repealed in 1986. Today the number of Hawaiian language speakers is estimated at over 30,000.

The illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian constitutional monarchy by social darwinist American businessmen in 1893 was successfully countered through the superior morale of the Civil Rights Era that strengthened Native Hawaiiansʻ resolve to insist that the Hawaiʻi State Constitution be amended in 1978 to include Hawaiian as an official language of the State, along with Education Code amendments to ensure that Hawaiian language parity with English would be enshrined in the State’s vision for the future. Hawaiʻi’s progress toward this vision has since inspired the State of Alaska in 2014 to make their 20 indigenous languages official, and South Dakota did the same in 2019 with its three Sioux dialects of Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota. Legal recognition of its indigenous languages is an important step a state can take to address its genocidal past toward its first nations, and several important progressive legal milestones, both domestically and internationally have prepared the way to create favorable conditions for indigenous language revitalization and survival.

America’s Indian Wars largely ended in the early 1860s through forced relocation to reservations when the US Department of the Interior began instead to force the assimilation of its indigenous peoples beginning in 1879 with residential (“boarding”) school internment camps designed to “kill the Indian, save the man.” Children were ripped from their families, often in hand cuffs, and forced under threat of physical and emotional abuse to abandon their mother tongues (and also kinship and cultural systems) and learn to speak only English. In 1924 Native Americans were finally granted US citizenship with the promise of its associated civil rights, however crimes of genocide were only first codified in international venues such as the United Nations whose charter was ratified in San Francisco in 1945, in part, to prevent genocide.

In 1966 United Nations guaranteed minority linguistic rights among its member states in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and two years later Canada adopted its Official Languages Act guaranteeing equal status and respect for French language. The American Indian Education act was adopted in 1972, the same year as the publishing of Robert Jaulin’s “White Peace” (“Paix Blanche”) which defined ethnocide in terms that included both intentional and unintentional effects of western economic development, and two years later the Native American Programs Act began Federal funding for indigenous language preservation. The American Indian Self-Determination Act was passed in 1975, and the following year the University of Hawaiʻi established academic standards for their Hawaiian Language bachelor’s degree program. The United Nations’ 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child that recognized the right of a child to use their minority language was followed up the next year in the United States with the Native American Languages Act which began to finance the preservation of 200 American indigenous languages through immersion education. In 1996 the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights established indigenous linguistic rights as a fundamental human right.

In 2003 Mexico recognized in its General Law of Indigenousʻ Peoples’ Rights 68 indigenous languages as “equally valid” as Spanish, and two years later the US House Concurrent Resolution 195 affirmed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) before it was ratified two years later by the UN General Assembly; the significance of UNDRIP is that it establishes the minimum legal protections by which indigenous peoples may survive. In 2014 the UN adopted an Outcome Document from the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples which set a schedule timeline for indigenous peoples to establish their rights, and four years later Canada adopted its Indigenous Languages Act. In 2019 the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court ruled that its residents have the right to an indigenous language education, and during the present 2022 election cycle, residents of Maui County, Hawaiʻi are voting to amend its charter to make its government bilingual to establish equal rights of participation in governance for its indigenous language speakers.