Indigenous Language Reclamation in Schools: A Holistic Understanding of Transmission

Joel Christian Broberg

University of Northwestern - St. Paul


Natural language and cultural transmission in Native American society have been severely damaged by White colonial influence, missionary boarding schools, and other negative policies. For decades now, schools have been major instruments of indigenous language revitalization in North America. State- and federally funded immersion programs help alleviate the effects of colonialism by teaching indigenous children their endangered languages and the physical representations of these languages, i.e., prayers, rituals, legends, and relating with nature. Holistic cultural transmission aided by federally funded schools is not only possible but works towards reconciling damage done by boarding schools.


Indigenous Language Reclamation in Schools:  A Holistic Understanding of Transmission

One of the most fundamental components of a community’s culture and identity is its language. Language is the means by which a society presents and transmits its unique traditions, values, and practices (McCarty & Nicholas, 2014). Although self-determined language usage is recognized a basic human right (UN General Assembly, 2007), hundreds of communities in North America have historically been denied the privilege of communicating their stories and histories in their own language; these communities have been impeded by aggressive language eradication efforts by colonizers, wide-spread epidemics, genocide and a long-established sociolinguistic hierarchy. These factors have contributed to the extinction of over 400 indigenous languages in the North America since the arrival of Columbus in 1492 (Hagége, 2011). Although some of the approximately 150 languages that remain are healthier than others, all face the threat of extinction (Bright & Campbell, 2016). The results of a recent survey conducted by the author suggest that while most Midwest White college students saw indigenous language preservation as a worthy cause, a small percentage of these students viewed language extinction as “unaffecting” and language preservation as “completely unimportant” (Broberg, 2020).

For the purposes of this paper, the following terms are used interchangeably: Native American, American Indian, First Peoples, aboriginal and indigenous. Another important clarification is the difference between the concepts of language revitalization and linguistic reclamation as defined by McCarty and Nicholas (2014). Language revitalization focuses on the increase of linguistic competency among a community’s youth. Linguistic reclamation describes the effort of indigenous groups to regain control of the language transmission process rather than allowing external colonial forces to determine how and when their languages are used.

A major provocateur of the eradication of indigenous tongues in the U.S. were the English-only missionary boarding schools established by the Civilization Fund Act of 1819 (McCarty & Nicholas, 2014). Indigenous students at these schools were prohibited from using their language, wearing traditionally native clothing or even going by their given indigenous names (Treuer, 2010). These boarding schools, combined with mass relocations and the establishment of reservations, stripped tribes of their dignity and rights as sovereign peoples. In the past century many federal measures have been enforced to facilitate language revitalization, such as the Indian Education Act of 1972, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, the North American Languages Act of 1990 (McCarty & Nicholas, 2014) and even a number of language revitalization projects in public schools (Riestenberg & Sherris, 2018). On more of an international scale, indigenous language and self-determination rights have begun to be recognized; Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or UNDRIP (UN General Assembly, 2007), states that “indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures.” Although intentional efforts and heightened awareness have indeed increased the usage of some indigenous languages, the methods and policies on the part of a post-colonial government still bear resemblance to its ugly past by refusing to acknowledge the roles of families and tribal communities in language revitalization. In considering the efficacy of language revitalization in schools, McCarty and Nicholas (2014) claim, “The history of official language policy in Canada and the United States is thus fraught with continuing legacies of colonization” (p. 116). The Jewish American sociolinguist and language planner Joshua Fishman (1991) went further: “Schools should be on tap and not on top of language…. Nothing can substitute for the rebuilding of society at the level of…basic, every-day, informal life” (as cited in McCarty and Nicholas, 2014, p. 107). Therefore, a balance must be struck on the state and federal levels between supporting linguistic revitalization out of a reparational obligation and recognizing the autonomy of tribal transmission methods.

An indigenous language cannot be separated from the cultural identity of the community that uses the language, which is used give life to their oral traditions, histories, and religions. Schools and their media of language transmission, which have proven to be potent propellants of revitalization (McCarty & Nicholas, 2014), should use indigenous cultural practices as a means of teaching these languages in order to transmit a seamless and holistic culture to indigenous students. This paper explains how federally funded immersion programs can help alleviate the effects of White colonialism by reinstating tradition transmission practices and minimizing the education achievement gap; secondly, this paper outlines the need for holistic transmission in schools in place of current models rooted in the tradition of foreign language education.

Indigenous language immersion programs help to mend the effects of White colonialism, which have historically devalued aboriginal culture. In 1819, boarding schools were established by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in an effort to eradicate all native culture. Captain Richard Henry Pratt, superintendent of the initial boarding schools, plainly outlined the objective of the Civilization Act that created these institutions: “Our goal is to kill the Indian in order to save the man” (Treuer, 2010, p. 31). All forms of indigenous culture, including religion, language, dress, hairstyles and even students’ given names were forbidden (Treuer, 2010). These schools and other negative policies not only interrupted the natural process of language transmission but effectively broke down the community and family structure of American Indian tribes (McCarty & Nicholas, 2014). Thus, efforts to revitalize these languages began in grassroots movements, famously successful in Hawai’i but scarce and limited in other states (Riestenberg & Sherris, 2018). In order to reconcile the injury done to these tribal cultures, it must be the federal government’s prerogative to provide indigenous language revitalization efforts in public schools with financial support and necessary resources to accomplish the cultural goals of individual tribes.

Some white legislators argue that the federal government does not have the responsibility of funding immersive programs in public schools. In 2015, Montana State Senator Roger Webb voted “nay” in response to a bill that would allocate funds toward a new Blackfoot immersion program in Montana (Martin, 2015). In a follow-up interview, Webb stated, “I would rather see individuals learn…Spanish or French or Chinese.…If they really think [language extinction] is an issue, it could be remedied on a homebase” (Martin, 2015). Roy Big Crane, a Samish tribal member and Montana resident argued in response, “It was through the policies of the government, the states, Christianity [and] public school systems…that helped almost eradicate the languages. So that circle might as well come back and the state might as well put some money in to help bring it back [sic]” (Martin, 2015). Fortunately, the bill passed in the legislature, making Montana the only state beside Hawai’i to have a state-funded indigenous language immersion program (Martin, 2015).

Arguments against federally funded immersion programs sometimes come from within aboriginal communities themselves. Freedom School, a Mohawk total-immersion institution on the Akwesasne Reservation along the U.S.-Canada border, takes pride in its status as a privately funded program (McCarty & Nicholas, 2014). Those at Freedom School are of the understanding that to accept federal funds would effectively “undermine [parents’] sovereign rights to decide the type of education their children would receive” (White, 2009, as cited in McCarty & Nicholas, 2014, p. 119). It is not difficult to see how a history of pointedly destructive efforts on behalf of the U.S. would make tribes hesitant to accept aid from a colonizing government.

However, many communities would be appreciative of government support, so long as the education that is offered reflects the tribe’s values and practices. South Dakota Senate Bill 66 would effectively establish K-12 community-based Oceti Sakowin, or Sioux, schools (S.B. 66, 2020). These state-funded immersion programs would work with communities, families and teachers to provide students with rigorous academics, personal development and support in mental, physical and social health, all in the three Oceti Sakowin dialects: Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota (S.B. 66, 2020). South Dakota Senator Troy Heinert, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and former elementary school teacher, is the bill’s main sponsor (Hendry, 2020a). In a senate committee hearing, Senator Heinert explained, “If we can reach these kids in a relevant, culturally appropriate manner, they’re going to come to school. They’re going to see their place in the world. They’re not going to feel different. They [will] feel valued” (Hendry, 2020a). The schools would be sponsored by up to four school districts, and funds would be allocated on the basis of student enrollment numbers (Hendry, 2020b). In effect, this bill goes beyond simply recognizing Oceti Sakowin as an official language, which the state did in March 2019 (Kaczke, 2019).

Accepting government funds might seem counter-intuitive given the goal of linguistic reclamation, as was previously mentioned in the case of the Mohawk reclaimers at Freedom School. However, implementing immersive or quasi-immersive language programs in high schools helps alleviate another—and arguably just as significant—problem among indigenous teens: the achievement gap. The Center on Standards and Assessment Integration is a U.S. educational research resource and assistance program. According to a recent study by this group, the years leading up to 2013 have shown the widest disparity between learning outcomes of white students and American Indian/Alaska Native students (CSAI, n.d.). Ojibwe teens in Minnesota are four times more likely to drop out of high school than the national average, and American Indian students in Montana are 20 percent less likely to receive a high school diploma (Treuer, 2010; Martin, 2015). As demonstrated by Senator Heinert (Hendry, 2020a), immersion programs give indigenous students a sense of value and a desire to learn. Giving indigenous students the opportunity to learn about and in their language promotes “increased self-esteem, higher Native student retention and educational attainment,” claims Dr. Richard Littlebear, who serves as president of Chief Dull Knife College in Montana (Pease-Pretty on Top & Littlebear, 2003, p. 5). Littlebear continues, “We have to retain that [key cultural] information in our languages, and that is why language immersion is so vitally important” (p. 7). Immersion programs do not only work toward assuaging the effects of colonialism but also allow tribal communities to transmit their values and practices alongside their language to the next generation.

Next, it should be understood why a holistic (linguistic and cultural) transmission is necessary in indigenous language education. (Of course, while holistic transmission is equally important to the transmission of all language communities, it is uniquely imperative to indigenous tribes due to the disruption of natural transmission for reasons stated previously.) L. Ajayi (2008), in discussing the connection between teaching language and culture, states:

[An] individual’s learning cannot be detached from other people’s learning. The connection between the individual and the society [connects] learning together with the cognitive aspect of the mind.…[Language] is entrenched into the society, and [people interpret] information through their consultation of their social and cultural backgrounds. (as cited in Goodwin, 2013, p. 71)

Even though Goodwin’s (2013) report addresses English learning methods in Arabic contexts, Ajayi’s (2008) aforementioned quote still presents a key concept, i.e., that contextualization is important for all language learning. However, indigenous students are not seeking to learn a foreign language—a concept apparently not grasped by Senator Webb of Montana; the goals of language transmission in indigenous contexts are different from teaching second languages in American classrooms, such as Spanish, German, or Chinese (Riestenberg & Sherris, 2018). While the latter examples are primarily taught to students as second languages, enabling them to interact with outside cultures, indigenous languages are taught in a desperate fight for the survival of entire cultures and in the students’ self-perception as part of a minority group. If there are different goals in teaching these languages, it follows that different methods should be in play. Prayers, rituals, and stories are vehicles of language-learning in traditional tribal contexts. The Hopi Indians of Arizona use the art of farming corn and preparing corn-based foods in order to pass on practical, hands-on vocabulary to their children. Youths are thus able to learn the language and participate in long-established practices. (McCarty & Nicholas, 2014). Regarding holistic transmission in the Lakota community, McCarty continues: “Similarly, among the Lakota, oral tradition encompasses guidance (wahohunkiye) about Lakota values and virtues: wantognaka, generosity; cante ťinza, bravery; wacintanka, patience; and ksabahan opiic Hyay, wisdom” (p. 114). In supporting indigenous-run revitalization programs, federal and state governments can serve as proponents—rather than hindrances—of essential aboriginal values and cultural reclamation efforts.

Another example of culturally conscious language courses, called “task-based language teaching” (TBLT), has been implemented in schools among the Zapotec in Mexico (Riestenberg & Sherris, 2018). The TBLT approach actively rejects “rote, frontal teaching practices adopted from colonialist conceptions of schooling” (p. 435). Riestenberg and Sherris (2018) tactfully clarified: “Although TBLT is likely to be considered an imported pedagogical approach in many Indigenous communities, these characteristics can, at least in principle, help to ensure that Indigenous language instruction proceeds as an emic rather than etic process” (p. 435). This learner-focused program narrows in on the extralinguistic communicatory needs of students and introduces grammar and vocabulary in the context of basic tasks, such as making food, simple games, and songs. Zapotec teacher feedback was unanimously positive, citing significant increases in students’ use of language since TBLT implementation (Riestenberg & Sherris, 2018). Unlike emic efforts, etic efforts for language revitalization arbitrarily separate cultural and language and ultimately decrease the efficacy of linguistic transmission efforts. Task-based learning not only facilitates quicker learning and increased retention but, more importantly, addresses culture and language as a single entity. 

Similar to the Zapotec program, South Dakota Senate Bill 66 itself puts forth a vision for holistic cultural transmission. During the legislative session prior to unanimous approval of Senate Bill 66 by the South Dakota Senate, State Senator Wayne Steinhaer described the curriculum as a “a disciplined approach that’s overlaid with traditional education” (Hendry, 2020b). Additionally, South Dakota Senate Majority Leader Kris Langer acknowledged how these new schools would address “cultural differences and [the Oceti Sakowin] style of learning” and “make learning fun and effective” (Hendry, 2020b). Indigenous styles of learning are ultimately task- and value-based; the recognition of such pedagogy echoes the heart of the fight for linguistic and cultural reclamation by the historically oppressed First Peoples of North America.

In conclusion, natural language and cultural transmission in Native American society has been severely damaged by white colonial influence, missionary boarding schools, and other negative policies. The federal government has the responsibility and the resources to provide financial support for indigenously-initiated immersion programs. This support would allow aboriginal languages to be revitalized and reclaimed while also passing on key practices, values, and oral traditions to tribal youth. In the shadow of the threat of extinction, Native American cultures and languages can be not only preserved, but completely revived, reclaimed, and functionally used by the future of American indigeneity.

Works Cited


Bright, W. O., & Campbell, L. (2016, July 14). North American Indian languages. Britannica Encyclopedia. Retrieved from Reference article on indigenous languages in North America. Bright is an Emeritus Professor of Linguistics and Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Campbell serves as a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa.

Broberg, J. C. (2020). Survey on university student perception of indigenous language revitalization in high schools. [Unpublished manuscript]. University of Northwestern – St. Paul. This 18-question, 41-participant survey aimed to answer the question “What are the perceptions of college students toward the effort of indigenous language revitalization?”

CSAI (The Center on Standards & Assessment Implementation). (n.d.). American Indian/Alaska Native achievement gap. Retrieved February 21, 2020, from This study looks at the disparity between achievement of indigenous students and students of other ethnicities. The CSAI, now the CSAA (Center for Standards, Assessment, and Accountability), offers services designed to serve educators and students nation-wide by analyzing and improving curriculum and implementation standards.

Goodwin, R. (2013). A discussion on teaching a language without teaching its culture. Arab World English Journal4(4), 60–77. issn: 2229-9327. A report on the consequences and ethics behind teaching languages separate from the cultures they represent, specifically in the context of teaching English to native Arabic-speakers. Goodwin serves as the Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and an Assistant Professor in the English Language and Linguistics Department at Gulf University for Science & Technology in Kuwait.

Hagége, C. (2011). On the death and life of languages. (J. Gladding, Trans.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Hagége outlines the states of most of the world’s endangered or moribund languages and the processes and history of language disappearance and revitalization. Hagége is a notable French linguist and polyglot and was elected to the Collège de France in 1988. Hagége has received several honors such as the Prix de l’Académie Française and the CNRS Gold medal.

Hendry, J. (Reporter). (2020a). Senate committee approves creation of Oceti Sakowin community-based schools. [Radio Broadcast]. Vermillion, SD: SDPB Radio. Retrieved from A radio broadcast introducing South Dakota S.B. 66, which, if signed into law, would effectively establish state-funded Sioux immersion schools in the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota languages. Hendry is an education and healthcare reporter for South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

Hendry, J. (Reporter). (2020b). Senate unanimously approves Oceti Sakowin community-based schools. [Radio Broadcast]. Vermillion, SD: SDPB Radio. Retrieved from An update on the approval process of S.B. 66. See annotation for Hendry, 2020a.

Kaczke, L. (2019, March 22). South Dakota recognizes official indigenous language. Argus Leader. 

McCarty, T., & Nicholas, S. (2014). Reclaiming indigenous languages: a reconsideration of the roles and responsibilities of schools. Review of Research in Education38, 106-136. Retrieved January 28, 2020, from In this article, Nicholas and McCarty ask important questions regarding the efficacy of language revitalization programs in public schools. Nicholas, a member of the Hopi tribe, works in education and language reclamation among the Hopi people and serves at the University of Arizona as an Associate Professor of American Indian Studies, Second-Language Acquisition, and Sociocultural Studies. McCarty works in education, linguistic anthropology, and language rights and holds positions as Professor of Education and Kneller Chair in Education and Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Martin, A. (Reporter). (2015, May 2). Montana offers a boost to Native language immersion programs [Radio Broadcast]. All Things Considered. Washington, D.C.: NPR. Retrieved from Radio broadcast on an approved bill in Montana which insured the allocation of state funds toward a Salish language program in high schools. Martin is a host and producer at Montana Public Radio and a recipient of the Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Pease-Pretty on Top, J., & Littlebear, R. (2003). Native American language immersion: Innovative Native education for children & families. W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Retrieved from A summary of Native American linguistic decline and revitalization methods. Pease-Pretty on Top is the founding president of the Little Big Horn College, former president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, director of the American Indian College Fund, and a former member of the following groups: the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges, and the Universities Advisory Council. Dr. Littlebear is the President and Interim Dean of Cultural Affairs at Chief Dull Knife College in the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Littlebear is an international advocate of bilingualism and bilingual education.

Riestenberg, K., & Sherris, A. (2018). Task-Based teaching of Indigenous languages: Investment and methodological principles in Macuiltianguis Zapotec and Salish Qlispe revitalization. Canadian Modern Language Review, 74(3), 434–459. doi: 10.3138/cmlr.4051. A dual case study on the implementation of TBLT language-learning method in indigenous communities in Montana and Mexico. Riestenberg is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Bryn Mawr College and has held positions at the Smithsonian Institution and the Center for Applied Linguistics. Riestenberg also works as a language teacher and developer with Zapotec speakers. Sherris is an Associate Professor of Bilingual Education at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

S.B. 66, 2020 Legislature, 95th Reg. Sess. (South Dakota, 2020). Transcript of amended bill that would establish state-funded Sioux immersion schools in the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota languages. Troy Heinert, the bill’s sponsor, is the Minority Leader of the South Dakota Senate, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and a former elementary school teacher.

Treuer, A. S. (2010). The people of Minnesota: Ojibwe in Minnesota. St. Paul, MN. Minnesota Historical Society. Treuer’s book covers the history of the relationships between the U.S. government and indigenous tribes, specifically the Ojibwe in Minnesota. Treuer discusses the establishment of reservations, missionary boarding schools, and other policies. Treuer serves as the Executive Director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University and Editor of the Oshkaabewis Native Journal. 

UN General Assembly. (2007). United Nations declaration on the rights of indgenous peoples : resolution / adopted by the General Assembly, 2 October 2007, A/RES/61/295, Retrieved January 29, 2020, from UNDIRP is a comprehensive non-legally binding resolution outlining the universal rights and standards of survival, dignity, and health of indigenous peoples. It is now unanimously accepted by the members of the UN.


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