Colorado Environmental Law Journal > Printed > Volume 34 > Special Issue > Indigenous Language Leaders: Perspectives on the International Decade of Indigenous Languages

Indigenous Language Leaders: Perspectives on the International Decade of Indigenous Languages


NOTE: what follows is a lightly-edited transcript of a panel discussion held as part of the 54th Algonquian Conference, University of Colorado Boulder, October 21, 2022. Three panelists (Justin Neely, Billie Sutton, and Richard Kistabish ) joined in person and one panelist (Rosalyn LaPier) joined remotely.


Justin Neely,

Billie Sutton,

Richard Kistabish,

Rosalyn LaPier


Kristen Carpenter, University of Colorado Boulder

Kristen Carpenter:

Welcome to our roundtable discussion on the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, this session brings together a group of Indigenous leaders with community, national, and international positions in language revitalization to discuss opportunities and challenges presented by the Decade. We hope to address not only language teaching, use, and transmission, but also issues of law and policy reform that can aid in this work. As moderator, I will introduce the four speakers, and then pose discussion questions to each.

On the screen with us, we have Professor Roslyn LaPier, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and also Métis. She’s an environmental historian and a scholar who’s the author of several award-winning books. She works to strengthen policy for Indigenous languages with the National Coalition for Native American Language Schools and Programs. And Professor LaPier has recently joined the Department of History at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign after some years on the faculty at the University of Montana. She’s very knowledgeable about plants, ecological knowledge, and traditional knowledge more broadly.

Next, we have Ms. Billie Sutton. Ms. Sutton had a long career teaching information technology in the Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education. She’s also been an elected legislator in her tribal government, served as a board member at the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College, and currently serves on the Cheyenne and Arapaho Language Board. She’s been an active part of the Boulder Indigenous People Day events as a representative of the Southern Arapaho people.

I would next like to introduce Mr. Richard Kistabish. Mr. Kistabish speaks Algonquin as well as French and English. He attended residential school, worked for many years at Health and Social Services, and was later elected Chief of his First Nation and then Grand Chief of the Algonquin Council of Western Quebec. He’s a member of the Global Task Force of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages as one of the Indigenous representatives from North America. Mr. Kistabish is joining us today from Canada.

Our fourth speaker is Mr. Justin Neeley, who is the director and has been the director of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Language Department for the last seventeen years. They offer onsite and online classes and teach the language in two child development centers, as well as at a number of high schools and middle schools. Mr. Neely is also the administrator for a Potawatomi language forum with over 6,400 people and two YouTube channels with around 400 videos on each. He’s joining us from Oklahoma.

Professor LaPier, would you kindly begin by describing your work with an Indigenous language or Indigenous language community?

Rosalyn LaPier:

First of all, I just want to say thanks for inviting me to participate in this conference and this panel. I think this is a really great opportunity to lift up the Indigenous languages, especially as we are beginning this Decade of Indigenous Languages. I think it’s great that you were able to fuse that with the Decade into this conference. I’ll just begin with a brief introduction saying I grew up primarily on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. I also grew up around the Pacific Northwest. My mom was a single mom, so I lived with my grandparents a lot. They were still first language speakers, as were most of the older relatives in my community. One of the things that I saw throughout my childhood and into my young adulthood was this transition from us speaking primarily the Blackfeet language in the community, at the grocery store, at community events, to speaking primarily English. Now that I’m an older adult, we really are at that point where we speak primarily English in all of our public spaces. The only time that you ever really hear the Blackfeet language is sometimes at ceremony and within the classroom, and I’m rarely inside classrooms. Because of this, throughout my adulthood, I’ve been actively engaged in language revitalization efforts kind of across the board.

I worked for a while with the tribal college in the Midwest. Throughout that time, one of the things that we did was we taught Indigenous languages and worked with different communities to revitalize language within those communities. I worked on my own home reservation in Montana with the Piegan Institute for over ten years, working to revitalize the Blackfeet language, but then also working nationally with a lot of different Indigenous communities who wanted to model what we were doing on the Blackfeet reservation within their own home communities. For the last ten years, I have been working with the National Coalition of Native American Language Schools and Programs. It’s a national coalition of schools and programs across the U.S. and the Pacific Islands of schools that are interested in using their Indigenous languages as the medium of instruction. So we are a small group, but kind of a mighty group because that is our main focus: looking at how to strengthen and utilize Indigenous language as a medium of instruction within school systems, whether they are community-based school systems, public schools, or charter schools.

For the last ten years, we have focused on trying to make sure that states and the federal government acknowledge the Native American Languages Act (“NALA”) of 1990. NALA declares that national policy is not only to allow, but to promote the right of Native American students to be educated through the medium of Native American languages. This represents a major reversal of previous practice where the federal government used schooling to eliminate Native American languages. Indigenous communities have the right to utilize their Indigenous languages as part of their own educational systems. These are not supplementary. These can be the primary way that people can educate their own children. I’ll end there, but that is the main focus that I do as an advocate of Indigenous languages. Thank you.


You’ve already said so many important things that I know we’re going to follow up on later in the conversation. I appreciated the point you raised regarding whether the language is spoken at places like the grocery store. Throughout Indian Country, I hear that as goal for language vitality: can people get through their daily activities in the language? Many tribal members express hope that, if it’s not currently the case, people in their communities will eventually be able to shop, text, see the doctor, and pay bills, all in their languages.

Ms. Sutton, may I turn to you to describe your work with your Indigenous language or community?

Billie Sutton:

Yes, I lived away from my community for about thirty years. I was not getting an education, just trying to survive in this world, working. I had two kids. Single parent type of thing. My grandparents, they spoke to each other, but they would not teach their kids. Subsequently, my mother and aunts didn’t understand. They knew some words and phrases, but they couldn’t hold a conversation, not even a small conversation, but I lived with my grandparents off and on for years. I was amazed that they could talk to each other, but none of us knew what they were saying. I wanted to know, and I would ask them questions. How do you say this? They would tell me, but they would never elaborate beyond that. I always had this I want to know, but there was nobody around to teach us.

Then I moved away from the community. I was about two hours away, and there were no other Arapahos, and certainly no other speakers. After I retired from teaching IT, I moved back home and didn’t do anything for maybe a year, year and a half.. Then I saw an ad that the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes were looking for a curriculum specialist. Well, I did that. I had to write my own curriculum when I was teaching for almost twenty seven years. It’s constantly changing, so you’re constantly changing your curriculum. I said, I’m going to go talk to Gordon Yellowman. I already knew who Gordon was. He was the director at the time, and when I went to talk to him, he said, okay, you’re hired. Here’s your office. That’s how quickly I got a job in it. I was the only one in the Arapaho section. A couple weeks later, they hired the current director. She was fresh out of college, and we didn’t really know what we were doing. All I did was I took the materials that were there: some recordings, and there were three Head Start books that Dr. Keller had helped kindle and create. I decided, well, I can take these, and I can build upon them and get them to the high school level because that’s the level it’s going to work at. But I quickly realized I need some help, so I talked to Rebecca Horsechief, who became the director as Gordon went someplace else. I talked her into letting me go to Wyoming to the immersion school for a month, and she agreed. I said, all you have to do is just pay my salary. I’ll get my gas, I’ll get my hotel room. This is something I need to do.

I went up there for a month, and I learned a lot. Then I decided I need to go to Montana. There was this Dr. Neyooxet Greymorning, who was going to teach people how to teach languages, so I went up there. Luckily, he’s Arapaho, and I’m Arapaho, so I had a reserve in there and I already knew some vocabulary, but his methods stuck with me. I learned a lot of Arapahoe in a short period of time, and I still retain a lot of it. I would say about 80% of it, and this was probably in 2013 or 2014. When I came back home and started working on this curriculum again, I put that method into work within the curriculum. I also understood that as a teacher, kids don’t like to sit around and just listen. They need hands on, get up, do something, activities. So within the curriculum, once you learn this set of words and nouns let’s incorporate it with what we’ve learned in these past chapters. One or two, write a little skit you get with somebody, talk it out, then you get up and present it. Pictionary The kids like Pictionary. So, okay, we’re in now and we’re beginning to learn what a horse and cow are, how to say that. Now, what this animal was. So all of that, we did about two levels of it. And then I thought, okay, you know what, the third level, we could use Colorado University’s curriculum for lessons and then get the grammar rules deep into schools. But I never got to that point.

The curriculum is still sitting there. We have two languages that we have to try to keep, not just Arapaho, but Cheyenne. I would do a chapter for a language and put the Arapahoe words in it, and then I would pass it on, forward it through email to a Cheyenne person that was working in the same position. Then she would take it and fit it to Cheyenne. So we were going back and forth like that, trying to create a curriculum. My goal is now that I’m only 5 minutes away from the school in my hometown, I would like to teach those kids there because they’re so far out. We’re over an hour away from Concho, so our kids don’t always get into the main body, where the larger population of kids get to get into activities that our kids don’t. We have that problem.

I worked in a lot of capacities as a tribe in the last four years before I retired again. I was a legislator. Like I said earlier, we were able to double our funding for a language program. A lot of the legislators and a lot of the political people that have been political people for a while didn’t understand putting that much money into language programs. I know we have a lot of needs within our tribes that are important that we need to address. Money needs to go here. Money needs to go there, and we need to create jobs. That’s important, but our language is important, too. We need our people to understand that because a lot of them just really don’t think about language usage when they can call on somebody, Hey, how do you say this? They do that with the names all the time. I started gathering a whole list so I would be able to help them with that. But as long as they’ve got somebody to lean on, they’re not really trying to learn the language. As I had mentioned earlier, we cannot compete with sports. They’re always going to choose sports for various reasons in our tribes. The parents want their kids in sports, so we’re not going to have them in evening classes either. Kids don’t want to stay after school for more school. I’ll do whatever I can to do what I can in my community and I’ll just do what I can to help.


Thank you. Mr. Kistabish, would you share with us your language, background and experiences?

Richard Kistabish:

So, in 2017 I received a call, not a call on a cell. Neither, it’s a kind of spirit. One day it showed up and said, I am the language. So I almost fell in love with that lady because she represented the language. She asked me if I was willing to do something about the language. I did on one condition. As long as that lady stayed with me for that period. She agreed. She’s not here with me now, but she’s in the backstage there watching me. It wasn’t my retirement moment. You know, at the pause of doing business and doing activities, it wasn’t the time for me to be lazy. I tried to translate that word lazy in my own language, but it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist, so I tried to explain the meaning of what it is to be lazy to an old lady. She says, we don’t have a word for that because if you accomplish all your obligation and all your duties, then it’s time for you to take a rest and enjoy the moment of life. That’s the way I translate lazy in my culture, but I have to go back to work. Then for some reason things happened just like that. I could say that it was really easy, but it took lots of time for me to realize that the work that we are confronted with to revitalize the language.

It was too much work at the beginning, but I decided to make things easier by believing in my philosophy of “small is beautiful and big is ugly.” That’s how I started to work, with small projects. I gathered some people here and there during that year, and then we heard that it’s going to be the International Year in 2019. We decided to organize a gathering about our language. We are going to allow only the Anishinaabe speakers to speak. I was so surprised because we have 300 people that showed up for that day and a half conference. You reminded me when you introduced me that I have only five minutes. At the residential school, we didn’t have any second to speak, so it’s huge, but it’s not enough. At that conference we received fifty seven recommendations. What kind of work should we do? We retained one of them. That’s to make the exhibition. The exhibition of our language. How is it possible to do that? Our language is an oral language. It’s not a written language. Our language is images when you speak, so how do you create the exhibition with images without a word?

We worked for a year to complete the exhibition then decided after that we will use sound. We recorded the birds; we recorded the moose; we recorded the animals, the birds, even the moose call in the fall. We recorded all these sounds, and we introduced the exhibition by adding those sounds. We were questioning how we could use technology when we do the exhibition, but that was a perfect example of how we can use technology to teach about the sounds of our language. It’s easier to say the words that go with all the sounds that we find in that territory. It’s phenomenal that we’ve been able to achieve that. But during the pandemic, we can’t make a tour of the communities of that exhibition. We had to store it for almost two years. Then we received a call from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (“UNESCO”) in Paris. It costs a lot of money to transport that exhibition. Finally, the government of Canada, the provincial government, and some donations from mining and forest companies paid the bill.

We ended up in Paris because UNESCO was saying that they are going to launch the Decade in the month of April and they chose April 22nd as the date. April 22nd is a beautiful date. It’s the right date because it’s the date of motherhood. Our language came alive because of the land, because of the earth, so it was perfect timing to make that exhibition right there in Paris. We did that even though the launch was postponed until December 13. We spent ten days in Paris with the exhibition. We received all the publicity that we needed across the planet, across the universe almost. Then we came back with that and started to do the tour of each community. This week it was again that the tour made a stop there. It was sad for me not to attend that because every chance that I have to go meet the communities, I always make myself available for that.

I have this idea that that you should record all your speeches in English then translate all these speeches that you make in your own language. Maybe some neighbors of yours could do the same thing. Maybe the other neighbor, the far away neighbor, like my tribe could use that speech and translate that in my own language. If we kept all the recordings of every leader that makes a speech, we could make a virtual library and rewrite our history. From here on and then we correct the past. That’s what I call honoring our elders, our ancestors. If we do that honoring of their memory, that will be a great step in order to revitalize the language, all languages in North America. I started to record last year, and it is simply amazing that you can listen to speeches in other languages. You’re going to enjoy that. You have to be patient, though, because it’s long sometimes. I’m sure that you speak longer than you expected. when those recordings become essential because they are part of history. and that the thing that I have in mind, that’s the thing that I have been developing since that lady of language came to see me. I have other ideas also. Kids, babies, newborn babies should, starting this year they should have their mother tongue name.


Mr. Neely?

Justin Neely:

I didn’t know the language as a child. I first heard the language when I was sixteen years old. I’m a second language learner of the language. I’ve been teaching the language for a long time, but one thing that I’ve come to realize is that the boarding schools and the trauma that was caused by boarding schools has affected us through many generations and has taken our kids away from the language, from their culture. But what I’ve come to realize is that today’s children, what’s taking them away is technology. They play video games in English. That’s all they hear is English. We need more content that our kids can listen to in our languages., Some of the tools that we’ve developed is I have two YouTube channels with about 400 videos on each one. We do on site courses. When you start a class, you have twenty or thirty people in it. By class two, you get twenty, and by class three, you get fifteen. It’s a cycle that everybody that teaches language will recognize. ttendance at each class is going down, and you have less people. The beautiful thing about technology is whenever we have a class in Shawnee, we also go live in our Facebook group, which has about 6400 people, or we’ll Zoom it, record it, and place it on one of our YouTube channels. So, it has the potential to reach thousands of people. That’s one amazing thing that technology can do. It can take one person’s voice and really amplify it to the world as a whole. We’ve developed an online dictionary. We’ve done twelve children’s books; we’re just finishing up a kid’s grant for that.

The pandemic has obviously been a very terrible thing for a lot of us. It’s caused us a lot of problems. But underneath every bad situation, there’s always a slimmer of something positive that can come from it. What it’s done for us is make more people open to certain concepts. For example, we use QR codes with our children’s books. So, instead of trying to kind of muddle through the language and hope you’re pronouncing it right, you can do a QR code and listen to it being read to you. Ten years ago, QR codes had kind of disappeared. They just were hardly being used. But now, because of the pandemic, you go into a restaurant, they don’t even give you a menu, sometimes. For a while there you had to have your QR reader to figure out what you’re eating and things of that nature. We have two courses that we’ve developed on Memrise is a platform that anyone can use and develop a course on. We have a self-paced course that we created several years ago on Moodle, which we’re kind of phasing out. I mentioned we have a Facebook group with about 6400 people. a new platform we’re using, which is Tovuti for teaching the language in the high schools in Oklahoma. We’re certified to teach the language in any high school in Oklahoma. Because our course is a self-paced course, you could have fifty different schools all doing that at the same time. And it wouldn’t affect them. You don’t have to have a person that does each individual course. What’s really nice about it is it counts toward world language credit. Instead of taking German or French to graduate, they can take Potawatomi. I was actually shocked to find out that some school districts weren’t teaching any languages because of shortfalls of finances or whatever. They were using technology as a language to meet that requirement. They were teaching no language. I just assumed they were always at least teaching a couple.

Another project that we’ve done is with Woolaroo. We actually got contacted by Google, amazingly, and they wanted to do this really cool program with us. They only did it with one Indigenous community in North America. They did it with about seventeen languages. Basically you take your phone, take a picture of an object, and it would tell you what that object is in your language. It would recognize using facial recognition technology or AI technology. And then it would say the word for you. What they did was they gave me a list of the 3500 most Googled terms. They told me they knew that some of these words we weren’t going to have in the language like a snitch or poodle or whatever, all these types, you’d be surprised at the strange things that people Google. I was. We had to come up with words for some of these concepts so then it would recognize it and play it in your language.It’s just a neat little tool, little technology that a kid can run around and take pictures of objects and hear those words. Not great for big sentences, but yet another little tool that they can use.

One that I really champion quite a bit is using public domain films. This is something that I’m going to talk about a little bit later. Like I said, our kids need content in our languages. I’ve had to go back and take movies from the thirties and forties that are in public domain: old cartoons like Woody Woodpecker, Superman, Gulliver’s Travel, hour and fifteen minute cartoon, and different films. I’ve put them in the language, then I did a subtitle of them. I did one that’s subtitled in English for people that are beginners, that don’t really know what’s going on. One is subtitled in Potawatomi, so if you’re a little better at the language, you can follow along in Potawatomi and if you missed a certain point, okay, that’s what they’re saying. Then we made one with no subtitles for people that were better with the language and don’t want to see subtitles or for kids. We’ve done this with countless, countless films and things. We even did the old Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer bit that you see every Christmas the one with the Abominable Snowman. It’s about a 50-minute cartoon in public domain, but it turns out certain elements of it are not: you can’t say the name Rudolph, and you can’t use the song. So, we called it Mskojanet, the red nosed one. We never said Rudolph, took the song out, and created this 50-minute cartoon in the language.

The nice thing about it is it only took a handful of people. We have three people right now in our language department. I have a guy that comes in and does videos once a week on Fridays. The cost to actually do those kind of films is something that really any tribe could pick up and do. Around Halloween, we decided to do Night of the Living Dead in Potawatomi, the old black and white one. Now, if you watch horror films today, it’s probably good that we could only do that one because they’re way too graphic, but the old school horror films were more about suspense and building up to that moment. There’s no better language than the language you get from a movie like that. It’s not a complicated language. It’s not “why is…”, it’s “run,” “hurry,” “What are you doing?” “Let’s get out of here.” “Can you help me?” “Shut the door.” It’s a precise type language that you use every day. It’s everyday type language, so that was a fun little project. We’ve done a lot of different public domain films and things of that nature.


Thank you, Mr. Neely. Thank you, everyone. This panel is full of speakers who are so deeply grounded in their communities, in their language experiences. This is exactly the kind of perspective that we wanted to bring to this conversation about the International Decade of Indigenous Languages.

Article thirteen of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“UNDRIP”) recognizes that Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit their language traditions. Then it goes on about histories, languages, oral traditions, writing systems and so on. One of the goals of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages is to help realize these rights in Indigenous communities around the world.

Based on your own experiences, what is your vision for the Decade? How could the activities undertaken during the Decade help to advance language rights as a practical matter? Professor LaPier, will you start?


Thank you again. This is a really interesting conversation that is happening and a lot of rich information that has been shared already. I hope that a lot of progress comes out of this Decade, but I’m going to start with this. I think that we still need to have some sort of truth and reconciliation process around Indigenous languages and around cultural genocide. Cultural genocide, at least in the United States, was an active part of federal policy and federal legislation, and it really is something that—within the history of the United States—we have not acknowledged that history that has occurred here. That is the truth part of truth and reconciliation. Then the second part is how do we reconcile what has occurred? Often times we relegate events like genocide in the past, and do not hold people responsible for actions that occurred in the past, even though those actors still exist. One example, of course, is the federal government. Another example is Land Grant Universities who have benefited from the loss of Indigenous lands, have benefited from this process of cultural genocide. So those are the places that I think that we need to seek restitution from first.

The federal government should be the one that is taking the lead again through not only changing and strengthening public policy public policy around Indigenous languages, but also by funding—in a noncompetitive way—Indigenous Indigenous communities who want to revitalize their languages and to fully implement the policy that does exist, which is the Native American Languages Act (“NALA”) Then also what was just mentioned, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I also think that states have a role here as well, especially states who have benefited from this process of cultural genocide and universities. There are several land grant universities across the entire United States that have benefited from the land loss of Indigenous people. They continue to benefit from the lands that they currently own. Because of that, I think those are places that we need to start.

In this ten years, I hope that we can create more scholarship that addresses those histories and those stories that really take to task those folks that are responsible for what we now, in community, are trying to address. I think that what happens within Indigenous communities is while this atrocity has occurred, we are shouldering the responsibility for that revitalization. Although I think that it is important for us to revitalize our languages, I also think it is the responsibility of others to get in there either through funding, policy change, scholarship, etc. They need to be jumping in and taking the lead. This ten years is a great opportunity to be able to again have kind of that truth and reconciliation process where we can get the folks responsible to accept responsibility, take the lead to reconcile what they have done, and to work hand in hand with Indigenous communities, especially communities who are working really hard to revitalize their own languages.


Professor LaPier, I appreciate your point about the remedial quality of human rights law. States have a responsibility to redress the harms that they have perpetrated on peoples, including Indigenous Peoples. Article 8 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognize that states have obligations to remedy past cultural assimilation and Article 13 recognizes that states have an obligation to promote the rights to use, develop, revitalize, and transmit their languages to future generations. Some of the tribal leaders I’ve talked to have said they cite the Declaration in grant proposals or legislative proposals to remind governments of those responsibilities.

Ms. Sutton, may I turn to you for to share your vision for the International Decade of Indigenous languages?


Yes. One of the truths is that for those natives that don’t speak the language, there’s actually a feeling of embarrassment mixed with shame. We used to, and I think they still are now, recording older stories. And that was one of them. In my community, there was a man named Rod Youngman. He grew up until he said his teenage years and then his mother passed away. Then he and his brother were shipped off to Fort Sill to go to school. In my community, there used to be a lot of native families, Arapahoe families but not anymore. They’ve all moved, and that’s because economically, there are no jobs in our little community population, which is not even close to a thousand. That’s how tiny our community was, but that’s one of the truths. What Rod said was that there was an older man in the community that everybody listened to because he was respected, and he only had one name, Young Bear. He told the people my grandparents’ age that had families that you need your kids to be able to survive in this non-native world. They’ve got to be able to work. They’ve got to do this or don’t teach them Arapahoe. Then I heard from other people my grandparents age and my mother’s age, that said, “We never learned Arapahoe because our grandparents and our parents did not want us to be punished for speaking it,” because they had gone through that. In fact, there’s a school, an old boarding school, Fort Kent home. We don’t know if there are any graves there yet. We’re supposed to be looking. When I asked my grandparents if I could go to boarding school because in my juvenile mind and my friends,’ we decided, well, we can’t play basketball because the banker’s daughters and all of them get to play. So, let’s go to this native school and we’ll be first team. That was our thinking, but they wouldn’t even discuss it. They just said no, and that was the end of it. They never spoke of it. That’s one of the truths. Those that don’t speak it, they’re kind of embarrassed and it’s mixed with shame. I keep telling people, it’s not your fault. It’s not even our grandparents’ fault for the decisions that they had to make, and we need to get that information out there. Even in my own community, even my own state.

The federal government needs to push states to look at us and recognize that we need this. We need help with our languages, because apparently in Oklahoma, if you teach your cultural history, you’re hurting non-natives’ feelings. They just don’t understand how badly it’s needed, but I can see it in my community. The further and further they get away from their cultural teachings and their language, the worse they get, even to the point where they don’t even want to admit that they are Native. But these next ten years, I would I love to see the federal government and the state government, local governments, our own tribal governments, understand that our own native languages are important. and there’s a handful of people within each tribe that are doing their best with what tools that they have to try to save it, to try to keep it.

I’m getting some great ideas from Justin over here. I’ve taken clips of cartoons and whenever I can find or whenever I can decide, okay, this is what I want to say. I mute the audio, so I just have the cartoon. Then I use Audacity and change the pitch of it and then I’ll time it just right. And I use what is called Tunely. I use that cartoon maker and then I use Filmora to capture audio and things like that. I would like to see a conference where we have a demonstration of tools that other tribes are using or maybe even curriculum that other tribes are using to help save and keep their languages. I think that would be very helpful, especially for those that are struggling, but that’s going to take some funding, because not every tribe has a whole lot of money. The people sure don’t. We’re below poverty level in our community, so we don’t have that. I would love to see us take some of our younger kids that have an interest in technology, have an interest in language, have an interest in linguistics. We need more of our native kids to be involved in that, so I would like to see scholarships. I heard somebody earlier say something about this, but yes, they do owe us. They’re still profiting from what they took from us. They have still not honored what they said they would give us to settle with us if we wouldn’t stay at war with them. So, it’s time to pay up.


Thank you. What I heard from you is that the Decade provides a opportunity for Indigenous communities to feel pride in their languages again, to recognize it’s not their fault if they don’t speak. It’s also an opportunity for all governments to assist tribes in recovering that pride by according tribal languages the respect they deserve.

Thank you very much. Mr. Kistabish, would you kindly share your vision for the Decade?


Let’s rock and roll with the languages. The Canadian government recognized the Aboriginal languages in the country, but it doesn’t recognize the linguistic right when they created Law 215. So, we are existing without the right. We have a language, but we don’t have the right to speak the language. It’s an important factor because even though if you exist as a human being, you can disappear without that trait. It’s important to create some kind of momentum in order to achieve that recognition of linguistic right. In Quebec, that’s where I’m from, the government created a new law in 1996, but in that law there’s no mention of the Aboriginal languages in Quebec. But they wanted to apply the law across the province. Even in our communities. So there’s going to be some fights going on in there for sure, but there are things that we can do. I’m calling on the Canadian population, including Quebec, that in the school system. They should have a protected area and time. Okay. Like any course that was given in an institution, they always have 5 minutes to change class. We should have one word during the 5 minutes. [Kistabish demonstrates a call and response approach to memorizing a word in his language].

There are also all the words that I use when I make a presentation. Start with just one word, to create some kind of momentum in each classroom, let’s say every week or every month. We create that momentum, that space that we need to revitalize the language. in each territory, in each school, across the country ten years from now. If we do that, it doesn’t cost money. It’s free, but we’re going to need some people, old people like me, to teach you the words, to help you to pronounce it. Every week? Every month? Every week, it’s 40, 40 words in one year and in ten years, four hundred words in the Decade. Then we can have some momentum in order to modify the law so that we have the linguistic right. I know the politicians won’t move on this, but us? If we work together in this one, they’re going to have to give it consideration for sure. That’s how we could implement the notion of this right. It doesn’t come very easily. We cannot rely on the promises of politicians, so let’s do otherwise. Let’s use the kids. Let’s use the teachers, let’s use the system. Let’s use the things that are very accessible to each of us. It doesn’t cost anything. Nothing.


I was listening to Mr. Tsykarev’s Keynote last night. He was talking about some of these standards of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, these concepts or platforms, that were highlighted as something that they want to be able to accomplish. I remember him saying something about how most of this is really going to happen at a national, municipal or, even a community level. It’s really not going to happen on a global level. I sat there and thought to myself, yes, but it could. It really could.

In my view, what we need to do is take these member countries and hold them to task to create an award system of some type where you take the top ten countries that are exemplifying these principles and these standards and give them some kind of award. You’ll be surprised how fast the United States will act if, let’s say, Russia comes in and wins an award or how fast China will act if the United States gets one and they don’t. Make a little competition among these countries, but they have to put their money where their mouths are because they always talk this big talk. It’s always talk, talk, talk. There’s never any financing. People always act like it has to be this massive amount of money, but we Indigenous people are resilient. We can take $5,000 and do some pretty amazing stuff it It doesn’t take billions and billions of dollars. My suggestion for these member states would be to have each country could give $100,000, a drop in the bucket, $100,000. They probably spent that much on their trips back and forth to the United Nations. Then you take these top ten countries that exemplify these principles and you tell them that whoever wins these awards, those ten countries will be able to apply for these grants and get this money. So, there’s a financial incentive to win this way, and they can hold their hats up and say, “Hey, we’re leading the charge.” Everybody else says, “Yeah, we’re not doing anything.” This is one concept that I had in mind. Again, what’s $100,000? But among 192 countries that’s about twenty million bucks. That’s a nice chunk of change to work with.

Then some other things I thought about, I was listening to Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe talk about this. We were talking about how some tribes had a language consortium claim rights over their language. We need a global declaration saying Indigenous knowledge belongs to Indigenous Peoples, period. That should be something these member countries sign. Then, when somebody decides they’re going to take something to court and say, “Oh, I own this,” we can say, “No, you don’t.”

Finally, I would like to see a global initiative waiving copyrights on media that is, say, ten years or older because they’re not making any money off shows from the 1980s. When I want to put something in our language, I have to pull stuff from the forties and the fifties check copyrights. We should be able to put stuff that just came on the TV in our languages. If these companies are not willing to finance that, they can have the option to do it, but they’re not going to. There’s no money to be made in making something in a language spoken by 20,000 people or maybe 5000. There is no money to be made, But there’s also no money to be lost. They’re not going to lose anything this way. If anything, it’s going to cause more people to watch that program in the dominant language because they’re going to watch it in Potawatomi or Arapahoe or other languages, and some of them are going to say, “Wait I didn’t quite get that.” Then they’ll watch it again in English or whatever the dominant language is. They’re going to get more people purchasing and engaging in their content, but they’re not going to do it. They have no financial reason to do it. So, if they could just relax the copyright restrictions on Indigenous Peoples where we could put content in our languages, and then I won’t have to sit there and know that when turn on TV all they’ll hear is English.


Thanks so much, Mr. Neely. In furtherance to your point, the UN General Assembly has called on states to consider establishing national programs to implement the International Decade of Indigenous Languages in partnership with indigenous peoples, and invites indigenous peoples, as custodians of their own languages, to initiate and develop appropriate measures for the implementation of the International Decade. Last night, I checked UNESCO’s website last night, and only three member states, namely Russia, Colombia, and Brazil, have so far published their national action plans for the Decade. In our region, we need to call on the U.S., Canada, and Mexico to do the same. On the Indigenous Peoples’ side, the Shawnee Tribe’s Decade of the Shawnee Language has initiated a long term planning process and this is a great model.

This last question asks: what measures you would like to see your national, state, provincial, local or Indigenous government undertake during the Decade? Professor LaPier, I’ll start with you again.


Here in the United States, there are a couple of things that we can do. I think that the United States government, at a minimum, needs to actually uphold the Native American Languages Act. NALA, the Native American Languages Act was passed in 1990. That is more than thirty years ago, and we still have not really instituted NALA across the board and/or strengthened it enough that some communities can utilize it as a tool for their communities to access the revitalization work that they want to do. I think that strengthening and upholding NALA across the board is something that the United States can do already, because the policy already exists. We don’t need to create new policy. We can just implement this policy that we have.

The other thing that the US government can do is create noncompetitive funding for Indigenous languages. Right now, the system as it exists within the US government is competitive funding. Tribes have to compete against each other to get funding to revitalize their languages instead of the US government really taking responsibility for their actions and for their previous policy of cultural genocide. The US should allow any tribe that wants to revitalize their language to obtain funding in a noncompetitive process. In addition to that, related to funding, the federal government needs to put a long term funding towards this goal. In the federal system that we have, federal funds are renewed typically every five years or so. So, a piece of legislation that has been passed, for example, the Esther Martinez funds, has to be re-upped every several years. It’s not a policy that gets created with funding that is there forever. It’s not. Then, when the budget comes around, people fight and argue over it. Folks like us at the National Coalition go to DC to try to advocate for more funding for revitalization of Indigenous languages, especially for communities that are interested in using Indigenous languages as the medium of instruction within their schools and their school systems. The federal government can make this funding perpetual and not something that has to be fought over every few years.

As I mentioned before, land grant universities have their role to play in this as well, but state governments are the ones that certify teachers. They create the laws that create teacher certification, and they are also the ones that then create the barriers that exist for Indigenous communities to be able to certify their own language teachers to teach in their own schools. Usually, it is a board of non-native teachers who are create policy that decides who can be a teacher or not a teacher. As we all know, the vast majority of language revitalization work that’s occurring in the United States happens in schools. It happens in public schools; It happens in private schools; It happens in charter schools. Charter schools and public schools are primarily operated by states and state policies, so states have a role to play here in allowing Indigenous communities to set their own rules about who can be certified to teach within their own language medium schools Additionally. states need to allow language practitioners to be at the table when they are making these decisions about state teacher certification.

The other group that does the majority of funding for Indigenous language revitalization is private foundations. and they have a role to play here by having sort of perpetual long term funding similar to what I suggested for the federal government. There are foundations who are interested in the educational systems and the revitalization of languages and tribal communities. I think they really do need to take that next step of saying we want this to be a long-term solution to many of the issues that we’re trying to address within Indigenous communities in terms of providing long term funding. Again, often what happens in private foundations is they will have an interest that will last for a short number of years, then they move on to the next interest. Oftentimes, when a tribe or a community is getting funding, they may get that three-year grant or that five-year grant, and that’s it. So, we need to have methods of long-term perpetual funding to address this issue of cultural genocide that was perpetuated against Indigenous communities in the United States. I think that can happen at multiple levels, primarily at the federal government level, also at state levels, but also those allies, those private foundation allies who are also interested in providing solutions. Thank you very much.


Thank you. These points about funding will be important for policymakers and foundations to hear. I particularly appreciate the point about state governments because those of us who do federal Indian law focus so much on the national level. You’re absolutely right that as a matter of education law, it also often is the state-tribal relationship where this is happening. So that’s a place where we need to devote our energies. Thank you.

Ms. Sutton, may I ask you for any recommendations on law and policy reform?


I have a friend who retired a couple of years ago from being the Indian counselor at Canton schools. She was there for nearly forty years, and she made $13,000 a year. She did everything for those kids. There are a lot of students that would not have graduated unless she went to pick them up or she called their parents. She did everything. She raised money with food sales to use if they wanted to go on a trip somewhere like Frontier City. If we could fund our schools on the local level, if the government, state, federal, whoever could fund our local schools. I think we would have more interest in supporting our Native American languages. Because I’ve gone to Canton schools before to talk with them, and they would surely welcome somebody but just didn’t have the funding for it. We are a small, poor community and it is hard to get backing when there’s no funding for what you need to do.

The state of Colorado, through Right Relationship, Boulder, is working with us now, too. We’ve got a GoFundMe page to have a language and Arapahoe summer camp at Estes Park, and they did it last year for the first time. I brought it up several years ago, but COVID messed everything up. Those who attended the camp said they had a wonderful time there. They got to know the area and the history. They got to learn some language and had a really good time. I could not participate last summer for personal reasons, and no one stepped up to do that for Southern kids. My idea was to bring Southern Arapahoe and Northern Arapahoe kids together and let them get to know each other and bond. That was my view, and we’re working on it again. I’m promoting a Go Fund Me page for that cause to raise money to do it again. If we had funding, language summer camps would be a good activity.

Let’s just keep this language momentum going. Get it in our schools. It needs to be there, and I worry about our kids. They’re not taught the language and the culture because their parents and grandparents don’t know it. It was great-grandparents time that we still had speakers. In our community then that they spoke the language. The federal government, state government, local governments and tribal governments have got to get on the same page and get everyone to understand, especially our politicians. That we’re not going to fix this on two or three-years grant. I agree with Rosalyn that it has to be long-term, non-competitive funding. The federal government owes us. They’re the ones that caused the language to disappear. We also need to just change the thinking in our tribal politicians minds because when it comes to money, they’re tighter. You know, even in my own government. If it was federal funding or grants, it’s fine. No problem. When it comes to nonfederal monies, it is an argument. You justify this and you justify that. Our politicians always said, “Well, aren’t you looking for grants?” We can’t depend upon grants, not for long term learning. No, we have to get it in our communities and on the local level. We need our politicians to understand that we can’t rely on trickle down from the federal government to the state. Funding needs to be placed in the local communities so they can do what they need to do without worrying if they’re going to have another job next year when that grant runs out.


Thank you very much. Mr. Kistabish?


Well, what I’ve been doing with my organization. We are seeking a partnership. We’re seeking to have partners like the Hockey Club, Montreal Canadiens. They are willing to participate, to promote the Decade. We are in discussion with those people and also other organizations. There was a mining company, there were forestry companies. Those people have access to the funding.


Mr. Neely, would you kindly share your thoughts on law and policy reform that you might like to see over the next ten years?


There were a lot of things that were said that were on my list to say. A lot of like-minded folks are in this room that have similar thoughts, but I do want to go back to that concept of the ability to put media in our language. It’s really important. There should be some kind of copyright waiver that could be done at a national level. There should also be incentives for corporations to put media into our language—money talks. Give them tax breaks for working with Indigenous communities. What better thing could you have than to be able to play on your Xbox and put it in Potawatomi or in Navajo or play your different video games in your language? That would be an awesome thing.

Rosalyn LaPier had mentioned about working with state departments of education. I’ve personally run into those issues in Oklahoma. We’re certified to teach our language in any school in Oklahoma, but if you want to do it in another state, you have to deal with each state’s bureaucracy. We have close to 40,000 tribal members spread throughout the United States and even throughout the world. Once in a while I’ll have somebody contact me from Texas, for example, that wants to see if they could offer the language down there for their graduation credits. I talked to the Department of Education in Texas, and they said, “We haven’t done it with these other minority languages down this way and that way. We don’t know if we’re really wanting to do that.” It was pretty much a waste of time, but every state is a little different. I’ve been able to do it with some folks in Michigan, and Michigan was very receptive to that concept. But what I’d like to see is a national certification system, so instead of having to contact all 50 states and play their game and run through their red tape. Go to one person, maybe through the Department of Education, the bureau that is in charge of certifying our teachers at a national level, and take it back to the states.

States hate having everything taken out of their hands and say you now have a requirement to work in good faith with any tribal communities that approach you that want to teach their language in your state. And how do you make them do that? You hold their dollars up. They want this funding because a lot of schools get funding for every American Indian, every Indigenous student that’s in their school. The federal government can hold that money back and say, “Your state’s not going to get this money,” or take it a nicer step and give them an extra incentive. For those states that are willing to work with your Indigenous communities, here’s an extra money that you can have. Having it from a national level would be helpful because like I said, every single states’ department of education has different funding than the other one. We need straight block funding. You get block funding for some of the entities based on treaty rights and things like that. This is something that the government owes us.

They spent billions and billions of dollars over 100 years to eradicate our culture and language. They understood that language was a central component of who we are as a people. Your history, your blood, your ceremonies, your song that makes you part of your people. But the language is a thread that ties it all together. They were aware of that. It was a concerted effort to destroy us, and they need to make a concerted effort to go the other direction. The billions that they spent to try to eradicate us in today’s dollars would probably be trillions. But there’s an idea of like, I’ve personally applied for like seventeen ANA grants, so I have a lot of experience. I’ve been lucky enough to get three of them; some three years, some two years. But they’re never long enough. They’re never sustaining. What a lot of communities end up having happen is they get that ANA grant. What happens when they get these grants? They’re able to get something going. When the grant ends, they’re not able to sustain it, and it stops. Then suddenly all this progress you made is gone. We need funding every year. It doesn’t have to be millions and millions of dollars. I mean, I’m cool with millions and millions of dollars, but it doesn’t have to be that. It can be just always knowing you’re going to have $100,000 coming in for language or $200,000. The federal government has always tried to get us to fight and gripe with each other, so here’s a few nickels and dimes you can all fight over and see if you can get it.

The problem that happens with that is, depending on the size of your tribe and the number of speakers you have, you’re in a different category. If you have a limited number of speakers, you may be only able to apply for one ANA grant. What I mean by that is the Cherokee Nation, for example, has a lot more speakers than we do of Potawatomi. We have less than ten first language speakers of Potawatomi—some would say less than five—but the Cherokees have over a thousand. Because of that, they’re able to apply for Indian grants as a museum. They’re able to apply through their immersion school and to teach it in the schools. They’re able to apply through their language program, so they can put in five or six applications where a tribe that has limited numbers of speakers islucky to put one in. Noncompetitive funding would fair things up a little bit too. If everybody just got a set a of money that they can put towards their language, that would be great.

There should also be dual signage on a municipal level. I think some states have taken an initiative to do more dual signs. I saw something recently in Wisconsin, where they were doing dual signage. I think it is near the Oneida Reservation. I know it gets a little more complicated if you have multi-jurisdictional things, but trying to create more dual signage, making us visible. We’re still here, and a lot of people would say they don’t realize that. Make us visible. Put it in our language. Put it on the stop signs. Put it everywhere you can look. You should be able to see our languages in your documents. One other idea that I had was actually what I meant to mention earlier on the higher level, on the global level, is to do an actual real census, particularly in this country. They send you out something to ask about how many languages residents speak and who speaks the language? If you don’t speak one of their top one or two Indigenous languages like Navajo. I think those are the only languages they include on the census. They don’t even have any statistics. They couldn’t tell you how many speakers of Indigenous languages are left. I understand it’s somewhat arbitrary, but make it more in depth and ask more deeper questions because you have hundreds of thousands speakers. Ask that community, those people. Why do you think you have more speakers? What kind of initiatives are happening in your communities? Basically, use it as an opportunity to really get real data that’s actually useful and not just random statistics to make people feel good about the status of Indigenous languages. That’s all. Mic drop.


Your presentations give me hope and belief that the Decade will truly be a transformative opportunity because so many people, although they’ve been committed for their whole lives, will find extra solidarity, extra opportunity, hopefully extra resources over the next ten years. In the future, I would love to see institutions in our region hold conferences with interpreters and technological support, in several Indigenous languages, alongside English, French, and Spanish. This could be one step, along with all of the other ideas presented here, toward a plurilngual future, in communities, as well as in academia, and other settings. Wado. Thank you. Merci, Gracias.