SEDL Southwest Educational Development Laboratory
Native American Resources for the Southwest Region  
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If you want the language to survive, it has to be everywhere that English is. It has to infiltrate every medium--music, books, television, even the street signs on the reservation. Every time they turn around, the kids should bump into the language.

Dr. Stephen Greymorning, Professor
University of Montana, Missoula, Montana

The Native American Languages Act, passed in 1990 (Public Law 101-477) and amended in 1992 (Public Law 102-524), makes it the policy of the United States "to preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages. "One of the ten national goals for American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN), which resemble the national goals established in 1989 by the Bush administration, is to maintain Native languages and cultures. Goal 2 states:

By the year 2000 all schools will offer Native students the opportunity to maintain and develop their tribal languages and will create a multicultural environment that enhances the many cultures represented in the school.1

This goal appears to have the most urgency for Native people, because language is a core component of culture and because so many Native languages are declining in use. According to Congressional testimony in 1992, several hundred indigenous languages were spoken on this continent at one time, but only about 155 still remain. Of these, it is estimated that:

  • 20 are spoken by people of all ages, including children;
  • 30 are spoken by adults of all ages;
  • 60 are spoken by middle-aged adults; and
  • 45 are spoken by only the most elderly.2

Nearly a third of these languages are used to varying degrees in the region served by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL). This region comprises Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. This source book focuses on the languages used in this region.


Brief Look at the Native Languages in SEDL's Region

The vitality of a language depends on at least two important factors: the number of speakers and the extent to which adults are teaching the language to children. "Only in the Southwest are many Native American languages relatively viable and vital," states Dr.Michael Krauss, Professor of Linguistics and Director of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.3 Of the 50 indigenous languages used or once used in SEDL's region, evidence suggests that 14 (28 percent) are vigorous, 18 (36 percent) are in moderate use, and the remaining 18 (also 36 percent) are extinct or nearly extinct.4 The number of people speaking an American Indian language in each of the five states in SEDL's region is reported in Table 1.


State Speakers Native Americans Percentage
Arkansas 279 12,773 2.18
Louisiana 320 18,541 1.73
New Mexico 76,738 134,355 57.12
Oklahoma 17,323 252,420 6.83
Texas 2,733 65,877 4.15

Table 1: Number and Percent of People Speaking American Indian Languages


Arkansas, where American Indians number only 12,773,5 had no federally recognized tribes until 1994 and no recognition system at the state level. One can only surmise which languages are spoken by American Indians in the state. Caddo is a language that once extended into southwestern Arkansas and northeastern Texas but is now associated with the Caddo Tribe in Oklahoma. Cherokee is likely to be one of the languages in Arkansas, especially in the western part of the state, near the Oklahoma border. In 1994, after the figures below were tabulated, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians relocated from Oklahoma to Waldron, Arkansas, suggesting that the state may have gained Native language speakers.

Indigenous language use is vigorous among members of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana.8 Adults speak the language to their children before they enter school, and employees of the tribe speak the language every day around the office.9 The Coushatta of Louisiana, like many tribes in the U.S., have established bilingual education programs for the children who enter school with limited proficiency in English to help them make the transition from speaking their Native language at home to speaking English at school.

Besides the Coushatta Tribe, Louisiana has three other federally recognized tribes: the Chitimacha Tribe, the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe, and the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, which has been federally recognized only since 1995. Several more tribes are recognized by the state of Louisiana--the only state in SEDL's region to have a state recognition system. The languages of the Chitimacha Tribe and the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe are now extinct. Fortunately for the Chitimacha Tribe, however, the Smithsonian Institution has recordings of its language that were made decades ago when native speakers were still alive. The tribe is working to preserve these recordings and make them accessible for posterity. The Jena Band of Choctaw Indians still has speakers among its 188 members, although all of them are middle-aged or older.

In New Mexico, where eight Native languages are spoken, Jemez, Keresan, and Zuni are the pueblo languages that are still spoken by children. The Mescalero Apache also have child speakers.10 The Diné Nation (formerly the Navajo Nation), which extends into New Mexico, has a sizable population of speakers, especially in certain locations, and Navajo is, by policy, the language of instruction in Navajo Head Start programs. Moreover, a full line of Navajo language courses for Native and non-Native people is available through the Diné College system. Two organizations based in New Mexico that are profiled in this source book are the Linguistic Institute for Native Americans, which has focused primarily on the Native languages in New Mexico, and the Lannan Foundation's Indigenous Communities Program, which has funded Native language efforts in both New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Oklahoma has 25 Native languages--more than any other state in the nation. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has been a forerunner in language development, and Cherokee language instruction is available at schools, colleges and universities, and community settings. In 1990, the Oklahoma Legislature passed H.B. 1017, allowing a Native language to fulfill the state's language requirement for high school graduation. Many tribes launched language initiatives, and the state department of education sponsored seminars on Native language curriculum development. The Seminole Nation's K-3 language awareness curriculum was the first to be approved by the state, which used it as a model for other tribes. The Comanche Nation obtained grants to try out both a preschool immersion program, and, more recently, a master-apprentice program.

Although the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians uses its language in every day communication and newspapers, only about 5 percent of the Choctaw children in Oklahoma speak Choctaw when they enter school.11 Students can learn Choctaw, however, at a public school in Oklahoma featured in this source book, and the Choctaw Nation piloted a language program at another elementary school that now maintains the program on its own. Community classes for students 13 years and older are taught in several cities and counties. Instructors speak, read, and write Choctaw, and the Choctaw Nation structures curriculum workshops around four levels of language instruction.

The Intertribal Wordpath Society and the Oklahoma Native Language Association, both established in 1997, help tribes work together on their language initiatives and encourage Native-language speakers to use their languages more. The Oklahoma Native Language Association conducts a conference every year in October on the teaching and learning of Native languages. The Intertribal Wordpath Society promotes awareness and teaching of Oklahoma Native languages through publications, public educational programs, a quarterly newsletter (Pathways), and a cable television program (Wordpath).

On the border between south Texas and Mexico, the children of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas learn their indigenous language before they enter school.12 Some members of the tribe are not only bilingual but tri-lingual, learning to speak the indigenous language first and later English and Spanish. The tribe offers tutoring and other services to help the children who enter school with limited proficiency in English. The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas maintains some use of its language, especially among older adults, but emphasizes the importance of mastering English. English is the language of instruction in the tribe's Head Start program.13 The situation is similar for the Tiguas, who reside in far west Texas near El Paso but have roots with the Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico.

The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century constitute a window of opportunity to support the efforts of indigenous people in SEDL's region to teach their languages in pursuit of a goal they have set for themselves and in accord with the Native American Languages Act.


How the Idea for a Source Book Developed

Through its work on a monograph titled Promising Programs in Native Education, SEDL staff became aware of Native language education programs. In particular, staff learned about several different approaches to teaching Native languages, including:

  • use of a Native language in a preschool where a certain tribe is predominant;
  • instruction of a Native language in a public school by a teacher or teacher assistant;
  • master-apprentice programs that pair an elder with a younger individual who wants to learn the elder's Native language;
  • development of computer software that preserves a Native language in spoken form, using the computer's audio features to record elders speaking; and
  • distance learning programs of Native language instruction.

In May 1994, SEDL participated in what was thought to be the first Native Literacy and Language Roundtable. This roundtable was attended by several Native language speakers, and the proceedings included recommendations for action regarding the teaching, preservation, and revival of Native languages and culture. Three of these recommendations are cited below:

  • provide information and support efforts that promote community Native language use and learning;
  • assist in providing policy makers with information to foster recognition about the need for certified experts in native language/literacy; and
  • document successes of culturally appropriate language programs.

These recommendations led to the idea of a source book on programs that involved the teaching and learning of Native languages. Besides documenting these programs, such a source book could facilitate the sharing of information with Native language educators, agencies, higher education institutions, policy makers, and other groups.

To guide the development of the source book, SEDL established a regional task force of nine Native educators and language activists from throughout its region. Members of the task force assisted in developing this source book by reviewing and commenting on the questionnaire used to gather information and on an early outline for the source book.


How SEDL Identified Programs and Collected Information

SEDL identified Native language programs and efforts through numerous avenues. According to the regional task force, staff could not rely on tribal governments for information on the initiatives concerning their languages. Based on this advice, staff consulted not only the regional task force but also state departments of education, state bilingual education associations, and federal government agencies for leads and for information on programs funded under the Native American Languages Act or Title VII (Bilingual Education Act). Staff disseminated a request for information via e-mail through two electronic mailing lists (NativeNet's NAT-LANG and the "langpres" listserv of the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education), and followed up on the responses. Staff subscribed to a few other listservs as well and kept a look out for messages about indigenous languages in use in SEDL's region. Names were obtained at conferences or pulled from the proceedings of conferences, including the 1996 annual conference of the International Native Languages Institute (INLI) and the first and second "Stabilizing Indigenous Languages" symposia sponsored by Northern Arizona University and other organizations. Names were also gleaned from the membership lists of such relevant organizations as the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages (SSILA).

While pursuing these identification strategies, SEDL staff drafted a questionnaire, reviewed it with members of the regional task force, and revised it to incorporate their suggestions. One of the suggestions from the task force, for example, was to add an item that solicited additional contacts.

Questionnaires were mailed over an extended period of time as Native language education programs were identified. The original requests for information that went unheeded were sent reminder letters. Altogether, SEDL mailed out 63 questionnaires and received 29 responses between November 1996 and June 1998. Of these, 24 provided information on Native language education programs, while five indicated that they did not currently have a Native language program. The 24 programs profiled here are by no means the only Native language education programs in SEDL's region. Others are missing from this source book either because SEDL did not learn about them during the identification process or because SEDL learned about them but they did not respond to requests for information.

The source book contains a profile for each of the 24 programs. SEDL staff developed a common format for describing the programs and used the questionnaire from each program to draft a program profile that followed the format. SEDL staff then mailed a request to each program to review its profile and revise it if need be. In this verification process, SEDL made it clear whether or not it would include the program in the source book if the program did not respond to its request.


How the Program Profiles are Organized

The program profiles are arranged alphabetically by language and then program name. Each profile begins with the language(s) with which the program is concerned, indicates where the program is based, lists the program's goals, and describes the program briefly. After the description, information is provided on the teaching materials or other items used in the program and on the funds or other resources that support the program. Every profile contains a name, address, and other contact information for obtaining further information. Since some programs deal with more than one language, the programs page is important for locating the languages taught only in conjunction with other languages. In addition, a summary of all 24 programs appears in a table at the end of this document, following the last profile.

One open-ended item on the questionnaire solicited advice about starting a Native language education program, whereas another asked more generally for advice or further comments. The intent of these items was to give the programs an opportunity to share any wisdom they had gained from experience. Their responses, which appear in Appendix A, are quoted almost verbatim, although minor revisions were made for the sake of conciseness or clarity. Appendix B is a list of recommending reading. The Native American Languages Act appears in Appendix C, and the Navajo Nation's long-range Navajo-language goals appear in Appendix D. This comprehensive set of goals may be useful as a model to any tribe in the process of developing its own language goals. Appendix E is a list of web sites and electronic mailing lists, while Appendix F provides information for contacting several relevant organizations within and outside of the five-state region.

We hope that Native language educators find this source book to be a useful source of information that facilitates networking. Perhaps with this source book, they can more easily draw on each other's knowledge and experience to start new Native language education programs or to enhance the success of the ones they already have in place.



1 Goal 7 of the more recently developed Goals 2000 for Indian America simply states "By the year 2000, American Indian and Alaska Native students will be provided the opportunity to maintain and enrich their tribal language and culture."

2 Ramirez-Shkwegnaabi, B. (1996). Proceedings of the 15th International Native American Language Institute. St. Cloud, MN: St. Cloud State University American Indian Center.

3 Krauss, M. (1996). Status of Native American language endangerment. Stabilizing indigenous languages. Flagstaff, AZ: Center for Excellence in Education, Northern Arizona University, p. 18.

4 The primary reference for this summary information on Native languages in SEDL's region was the 1992 Ethnologue, compiled by the International Center of Linguistics (commonly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics) in Dallas, Texas. Web site:

5 1990 U.S. Census.

6 Gale Research, Inc. (1995). Statistical Record of Native North Americans, 2nd edition. Original source: U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1990 Census of Population and Housing, Characteristics of American Indians by Tribe and Language, pp. 874-875.

7 1990 U.S. Census

8 Skinner, L. (1990). Teaching through traditions: Incorporating Native languages and cultures into curricula. Indian Nations at Risk Task Force, Commissioned Paper Number 10. Summarized in Cahape, P. and Howley, C. B. (Eds.) (1992). Indian Nations at Risk: Listening to the People. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools.

9 Shirley Doucet, member of SEDL's regional task force and Director of Education for the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, personal communication, October 12, 1996.

10 Krauss, M. (1996). Status of Native American language endangerment. Stabilizing indigenous languages. Flagstaff, AZ: Center for Excellence in Education, Northern Arizona University.

11 Kwachka, P. Native literacy. Panel presentation at the Native Literacy and Language Roundtable in Denver, Colorado, May 5-7, 1994.

12 Juan Gonzalez, member of SEDL's regional task force and a tutor for the Social Services Department of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, personal communication, July30, 1996.

13 Clem F. Sylesteine, then Second Chief and Tribal Councilman of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, personal communication, December 4, 1996.

Language and Diversity Program
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