Prior to the arrival in the Americas of European settlers over 1,000 languages were spoken by the Native Americans who lived in North and South America. Today most of these languages have become extinct with only a few still spoken; mostly by tribe elders. On this page is a list of facts about Native American Language written for both kids and adults. This information includes which languages are still spoken, how complex these languages are, why these languages are important to preserving Native American culture, and what measures are being taken to preserve American Indian languages.
Native American languages were often very complex; even compared to modern day languages.
There were major differences in the numerous languages spoken in the Americas prior to contact with Europeans. Often tribes living just a few miles apart could not communicate with each other verbally due to differences in grammar.
Native American tribes that could not communicate verbally due to differences in language often used sign language to communication. This sign language was often quite complex with numerous hand signs representing various words or things.
Prior to European contact none of the people native to America developed a system of writing.
In the United States only eight surviving Native American languages have a significant number of speakers; they are Navajo (by far the largest population of speakers), Cree, Ojibwa, Dakota, Cherokee, Apache, Choctaw, and Blackfoot.
There were historically numerous Native American language families; which are similar languages with originated from a common language. These language families included Algonquin, Iroquoian, Salishan, Siouan, Muskogean, Sahaptian, Kiowa-Tanoan, and Caddoanand Athabaskan.
In the 1800s and early 1900s the United States government implemented several policies which contributed to the extinction of Native American languages. Many Indian children were sent to schools, run by the government, where they were not allowed to speak their native languages. The goal of these policies was to assimilate Native American Indians into the culture of the U.S.
Native American languages played a key role in helping the Allies win World War II. Native Americans, mostly Navajo, who became known as "code talkers" were used to send important secret military messages. Enemy intelligence soldiers could not decipher these messages.
Preservation of Native American Languages
In the mid-1900s people started to realize the importance of preserving Native American languages. It was realized that with the extinction of a language came a certain loss of those people's culture and history.
In 1990 the U.S. Congress passed the Native American Languages Act which states that it will be the government's policy to "preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages".
In 2006, with the passing of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, federal money grants were made available to Native American language programs.
In October of 2014 the governor of Alaska signed into law House Bill 216. This bill officially recognizes the twenty indigenous languages in Alaska. The importance of this bill is that these languages are now officially recognized therefore aiding efforts to preserve the languages. Alaska is the 2nd state to officially recognize native languages; Hawaii was the first.