The diversity of Native American languages

When driving across the state of Wyoming, you may pass through places like Cheyenne, Meeteetse, Ten Sleep or Medicine Bow.

Those towns all vary in location and sizes, but they all have one similar characteristic – they bear names that trace their roots to Native American languages. 

While English and Spanish are predominate languages in the United States, the American West — including Wyoming and its neighbors — have thousands of people who still speak the dialects of their ancestors. 

A common misconception is that there are one or only a handful of Native American languages.

Martha Poolaw, a professor of Native American linguistics at the University of Oklahoma and a member of the Kiowa Nation, said sentence structure, vocabulary and phrases are often entirely different from tribe to tribe. 

The Crow, whose reservation is located just north of Sheridan, speak from a Souian-Catawban root language. This is loosely the equivalent of saying that English and Italian are Latin-root languages. Still, it’s unlikely that two Souian speakers using different dialects would be able to understand each other in a casual conversation. 

Even for the Kiowa, a people who used to live near the Crow and other Souian tribes, there are only a handful of words that are similar between the two peoples. 

“There are a few words that are similar,” Poolaw said. “(The Crow’s) word for “thank you” is similar to ours … but, for the most part, they are entirely different.” 

In many cases, a tribe’s language will have tighter roots with tribes thousands of miles away than its neighbors. This mainly has to do with the migration of tribes over hundreds of years, according to Poolaw.

The language of the Arapaho, a tribe located in central Wyoming, and the Cheyenne, who reside in eastern Montana north of the Crow Tribe, come from the Algec family of languages. As a result, those tribes have more words in common with nations who were originally located along the eastern coast of the United States as opposed to their neighboring Plains Indians. 

Much like Indo-European languages, Native American vocabulary expanded when mixed it with other cultures. As the first white settlers entered the American West, Native Americans were introduced to new ideas and items. As a result, they developed words in order to interact with traders, many of which have English-sounding pronunciations. 

Other discoveries led to new words as well. When horses began populating the Great Plains in the 1500s, the Lakota-Sioux described the animal as Sunka Wakan. This can be roughly translated to “mysterious dog.” 

Language is an important part of Native American culture for the purpose of storytelling. For many tribes — especially the Plains Indians — stories were not written with words but instead passed on orally from generation to generation. 

According to Dr. Caskey Russell, the head of the Native American Studies Department at the University of Wyoming, storytelling serves as a passage to the sacred for many indigenous people. Storytelling goes hand-in-hand with art, music and dancing rituals to reinforce a connection with ancestors and the spiritual world.

While Native American languages have long been a part of tribal identity, languages from many tribes are disappearing.

Approximately 3,000 people speak any type of Crow today. That’s less than half of the members of the tribe. Around 1,700 Cheyenne can speak their language and approximately 1,000 people can speak Shoshoni. This is according to the 2016 Ethnologue, a document that analyzes the status of languages in the United States.

Of the 200-250 Native American Languages in America, only around a dozen are not in danger of becoming extinct by mid-century, according to Russell. 

There are plenty of efforts taking place to revive these languages. Just north of Sheridan, the Crow Language Consortium, which is a collective of Crow schools, colleges and educators, is working to ensure the members of the Crow Nation do not lose their language. Additionally, enrollment in Native American language courses at universities and colleges has increased. 

Russell said many tribes across the country have been pushing total immersion of the language — using English and native tongues interchangeably outside the classroom.

“There has been a massive push of revitalization recently,” Russell said. “We are seeing a lot of tribes not only teach it at the college level but at the high school level as well.” 

Locally, Native American languages are taught at many schools on and near reservations. Schools on the Wind River Reservation teach Shoshoni and Arapaho while high schools on and near the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations have staff dedicated to teaching their native languages as well.

“I think a lot of people are realizing that if the next generation doesn’t speak these languages, we might lose them forever,” Poolaw said.

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