Across the United States, tribes are struggling to revive what once came to them naturally. After hundreds of years of suppression and forced assimilation, Native languages have dwindled from more than 300 to only a handful today. With less than a dozen fluent speakers of Potawatomi among the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, the language department faces a unique challenge in teaching and preserving our native tongue.
“Like all languages, ours is unique to us and carries with it many elements of our history and culture; it helps us define our identity, culture and traditions,” said Justin Neely, director, CPN language department. “If we want to survive and understand our history and traditions, we have to learn and revive our language.”
The American Indian Freedom of Religion Act in 1978 ended nearly 100 years of suppression and forced assimilation by the United States government. For years, a network of boarding schools worked to destroy Native Americans’ language and culture.
“It’s only within the last 10 years or so that we’ve seen tribes have the resources and opportunities to really focus on reviving their languages and cultures,” added Neely. “Right now we’re hanging from a cliff and hanging on by our teeth. Our language is still slipping away.”
Of the 300 Native American languages in North America only 125 survive today and it is estimated that another 50-70 could disappear in the next decade unless revitalization efforts are supported.
“Currently there are fewer than 10 people who speak Potawatomi from a first language perspective and only another dozen or so who speak it from a second language perspective,” said Neely. “We need our younger generations to take an interest in their language and culture now so that we can increase those numbers and keep our language and culture alive.”
The language department currently works with children and teachers at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Child Development Center to offer a comprehensive curriculum of cultural stories in the Potawatomi language and cultural education on video. The naming ceremony, pipe, drum, and horse and buffalo ceremonies have also been reintroduced.
The language department also offers classes in person and online. A beginner language course is offered online on Tuesdays from noon to 1 p.m. and an evening class is offered online from 7 to 8 p.m. An intermediate class is offered online Thursday from 2 to 3 p.m. Additional classes are offered in Shawnee at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center.
“So many of our tribal citizens live away from Shawnee and many more don’t know anything about their tribe or culture,” said Neely. “This is your opportunity to feel more connected with your culture and heritage. Learning your language will give you a deeper connection with your tribe no matter where you are.”
Visit www.potawatomi.org/lang for language resources and information on a class schedule.