That’s the title of an article by Jack Hitt in today’s NY Times Magazine. It’s about the amazing increase in Native American population in recent decades, an increase fueled by change in self-identification rather than birth rates (and no, it’s not about cashing in on casinos). There’s a good deal about language, and the conclusion is that language-learning is a good way to prove who’s really serious about belonging.

Laura Redish sees language revival at the heart of the new anxiety of identity: “It also takes a commitment to learn a language. I’ve noticed that urban mixed bloods, especially, want to learn—to not be wannabes. And language shows they are serious about connecting to who they are.”

From a small country lane in Connecticut, Stephanie Fielding rambled down a few dirt roads to a small clearing beside a rushing river. Her great-great-great-aunt Fidelia Fielding died in 1908, and a memorial stone dominates the sloping cemetery here. Fidelia was the last speaker of Mohegan. Today, Stephanie Fielding is devoted to reviving the language that Fidelia Fielding spoke. She travels from library to library scouring books and ancient missionary letters and documents. She is putting together her ancestral language, brick by brick, word by word.

You might mistake Stephanie Fielding for just another nice-looking lady with reddish hair and, judging from that name, British extraction. But she is a member of the wealthiest Indian tribe in America—the Connecticut Mohegans, whose members divide the revenue from two lucrative casinos. Fielding is 59, and she has devoted the rest of her life to reviving her great-great-great-aunt’s language. This June, she received her master’s degree in linguistics from M.I.T. Like so many people devoted to language restoration, she admires the example of Hebrew, a language that essentially died more than two millennia ago, surviving only as a sacred text. It wasn’t until the 19th century that a Zionist linguist took on the painstaking work of confecting a modern, slangy, day-to-day tongue out of the hallowed idiom of Moses. Fielding is trying to do the same, and then some. She doesn’t begin with a body of Scripture, like the revivers of Hebrew had, but with not much more than some missionaries’ notes and transcripts of long-dead speakers. Most of Fielding’s work at M.I.T. has focused on creating a kind of linguistic algorithm that will permit her to take many of the accepted proto-Algonquian words and generate an authentic Mohegan vocabulary. Her tribe has commissioned her to put together a dictionary and a grammar to give the next generation a voice from the past.

Because it is time-consuming and difficult to learn any language, the commitment it takes to attend one of Wendy Geniusz’s camps or to sign on with Fielding’s work or to participate in any of the widespread Native American language revivals weeds out the easy hobbyists and leaves a cohort of Indians whose authenticity—regardless of genealogy or blood quantum—may one day be hard to question.

“Language is an important vehicle of transmission of culture,” says Angela Gonzales, a Hopi Indian and an assistant professor of sociology at Cornell University. “Some tribes resist letting any outsiders even speak their language. But that’s why language is important. It’s a great vehicle for the storage of important inaccessible cultural material.” Since it is no longer enough for a man passing you on the street to look Indian, maybe the next generation will note in passing that that guy certainly sounded Indian. In 50 years, many of the tribes now being dissed as wannabes will have age, tradition and solemnity on their side. Who will be around to question their authenticity? Far more likely is the possibility that the reshaping of American identity, among Indians as well as other ethnicities, will simply be accepted as the way it always was and always was meant to be.

Incidentally, there’s a nice page of “Original Tribal Names of Native North American People” on Redish’s Native American languages site; it focuses on Eastern and Plains tribes, but presumably they’ll be adding West Coast and other tribes as time goes on. (Thanks to Eliza at for bringing this page to my attention!)


  1. Okay, if I feel the need to make any more copy-editing statements here in the next six months, I will restrain myself, but; “with … British extraction” ?

  2. Heh. Good catch.

  3. The desire to recover one’s roots is admirable; I’m all for it. But again I ask, is it possible to ‘reconstruct’ a language, brick by brick?
    Without subscibing to the ‘purism’ fallacy, I just wonder how authentic such a language can be.
    I will just mention a simple example:
    The Chinese would say 我们快到了 to say they have almost arrived somewhere. In English, we would normally say ‘We’re almost there’. 我们到了!would be, colloquially (and depending on the situation), ‘We’re there!’ (The French use the word ‘arriver’ for this purpose. I was completely thrown in France when someone said to me ‘J’arrive juste’ — or something like that — to say ‘I’ll (go and get the car and) be here in a minute’. I couldn’t figure out why they were talking about ‘arriving’!)
    To get to the point, if a Chinese person, say, was reconstructing English from scratch, isn’t it likely that the ‘reconstructed English’ would be ‘We’ve almost arrived’ and ‘We’ve arrived!’ This is not to say that ‘We’ve arrived’ is incorrect English, but for a native English speaker ‘We’re there’ is more idiomatic. It’s these little expressions and ways of saying things that have to be learnt in a living context that make a language what it is. Such living language is not always easy to pick up from dictionaries and textbooks, let along from old records.
    I want to emphasise I’m not knocking the idea of trying to revive a language. Even just the attempt to recover a language will be a richly rewarding effort, even if only in terms of gaining a personal insight into how your ancestors spoke and thought. But my heart bleeds for the people who are forced to make such painstaking efforts to recreate their own ancestral culture. Can it ever resemble the real thing?

  4. I would have to disagree with anyone who says that the American Indian (Native American) population is increasing. On the contrary, all of the American Indian tribes seem to be declining in numbers as well as “half-breeds” in these groups.
    Growing up in the Seattle area in the 1950’s and 60’s I knew a lot of kids in my neighborhood who were American Indian or a good part American Indian usually Blackfoot, Sioux or California Cherokee. The numerous French Canadian kids I knew were also more native than French. They are all absent in the demagraphic here today. I believe that the main culprit has been illegal immigration. Illegal immigrants, no matter what country they come from, take jobs away from American workers. The hardest hit are always the poorest in our society , Blacks, American Indians, some categories of blue-collar Whites. They are the first to lose their jobs. Without a job you cannot buy a home, pay the rent or the bills or raise a family. That’s the kind of society that we live in.
    I have also seen the numbers of indigenous Duwamish here in Seattle drop as well and have witnessed the near extinction of their language which I still heard on the streets of Seattle as late as the 1960’s.
    Nor is this just a Seattle phenomenon. Although I have not been to Oklahoma, accounts I’ve read of people who have visited the state recently claim that there are few signs of American Indians there today in what ironically was once the Indian Territory.

  5. Excuse me. “Demagraphic” should be demographic.

  6. bathrobe: The situation isn’t as dire as that for Mohegan, because there are closely related Algonquian languages to draw on; of course some idioms are lost forever, but it doesn’t really matter — whatever Indian spirit inheres in the language will be intact, and children who learn it will soon turn it into a language as authentic as any other.
    brian: Reread my second sentence (or take a look at the article I link to): the increase is “fueled by change in self-identification rather than birth rates” — in other words, people are marking the “Native American” box on census forms.

  7. Brian is right about the demographics of Seattle, but then, everyone is moving out of Seattle except homeless people and anyone with enough money to buy a Belltown condo. In the region though, the situtation is brighter. The Puyallups and many of the other tribes are pushing Lushootseed in their tribal schools, and the Sklallam and Lummi are doing the same. The intent is to teach those langugaes as the second language in place of Spanish or whatever.
    As for the Blackfoot or the Sioux, they are hardly any more native to the region than are the Mixtec or Zapotec that are now so numerous in the Yakima area.
    The observation about inauthentic expressions in these rebuilt languages is valid, but it is a probelm everywhere. In Ireland they call the phenomenon “Mahogany Gaspipes Irish” The words are Irish but the langugae isn’t. In English we just think this kind of thing is cute in an immigrant grandmother kind of way. Would anyone part with all the fun Germanisms and Yiddishisms in American English?

  8. Dr. Zuckerman has much to say about the relation of the Hebrew of Moses and the Ivriet of Israel today. Languages change, so personally I would consider the old and the new to be one Hebrew language, despite the obvious differences. Languages tend to enjoy different stages, as e.g. Latin is divided in Archaeic, Republican, Golden, Silver, Vulgar, Neolatin, it is all Latin. The same for the Greek, Arabic, Chinese, etc., so why not for the Mohegan? I do not think they need be pessimistic about their reconstructions. I wish them lots of stamina.

  9. Rick Grimm says

    Grrrrr… If it wasn’t for intense fatigue on my part (I’m on a Six Feet Under Season 4 marathon), I’d write more generously on the above comments.
    Of course it’s possible to revive a language! But any linguist would tell you that the final product would not fully capture the former language it has replaced. And who cares about subtleties and idiomatic crap, that stuff develops over time! They can’t just be invented. Suffice it to stay, you start with a glossary, a grammar and pronunciation guide, and go from there. If it takes 3 generations for an idiolect/sociolect/language to dissolve, then surely it will take at least that for the revitalized variety to evolve and take new shape. Les langues sont souples.
    Oh, and as for the comment regarding the native population growing in the US, I wonder if the same is occuring in Canada. One thing is for certain, however, is that speakers of aboriginal languages are diminishing at a rapid pace (our gov’t is too god damned cheap to help sustain them!). With only slightly more than a million speaker of native languages in Canada, nearly all of whom are necessarily bilingual, it’s hard to say when the balanced bilingual state will slowly shift to the (inevitable?) state of obsolescence. That said, let revitalization do what it may/can. If anything, it sparks hope and interest.
    LH, thank you so much for posting this topic. Really, we need more posts about language revival and maintenance to encourage discussions, in turn activating awareness.
    Those who are interested, Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) is organizing between 14-16 October a Conference on Language & Poverty. Leanne Hinton, an expert of aboriginal american languages in California (and co-author of The Green Book of Language Revitalization) will be there.
    OK. My rant is done.

  10. That was a rant? As far as I could see it was all sweetness and light 🙂
    As for whether a language can or cannot be revived, the question is: “Why would you want to revive a language?” If the answer is ‘to retrieve and bring to life a culture that is of great value and significance to people (or a certain group of people)’, the second question is: “Is what you are reviving going to be the genuine article? If it’s not the genuine article, what is the value in reviving it?”
    Were a Mohegan from olden times to miraculously time-travel to the future and meet some of these ‘souple’ language speakers, what would he make of them?
    No doubt language changes over time, and as I’ve said, I don’t want to fall into the purism trap, but if all things change over time, what is the use of reconstructing these things? It’s a lot of time and effort to go to, merely to get something that (1) isn’t the real mccoy and (2) isn’t very viable in current U.S. society. Languages like these are going to have to be on artificial life support for a long time!

  11. Klingon has a lot more fluent speakers than Cornish or Mohegan, and it was entirely made up from wholecloth, simply for fun.
    So it can be done, if people want to do it.

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