Colorado Environmental Law Journal > Printed > Volume 34 > Special Issue > Successful Collaborations Between Indigenous Activists and Academic Linguists: How the International Year of the Indigenous Languages led to three projects for the International Decade of the Indigenous Languages

Successful Collaborations Between Indigenous Activists and Academic Linguists: How the International Year of the Indigenous Languages led to three projects for the International Decade of the 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 (Shannon Bischoff, Monica Macaulay, and D.H.) joined remotely.


Andrew Cowell, University of Colorado Boulder;

Shannon Bischoff, Purdue University-Ft. Wayne; 

Monica Macaulay, University of Wisconsin-Madison; and 

Doug Whalen, CUNY Graduate Center and Endangered Language Fund


Joe Dupris

Part one: Overview

Shannon Bischoff

I’m Shannon Bischoff. With my colleagues Doug Whalen and Monica Macaulay, we’re going to talk about successful collaborations that we’ve been involved with, as well as some other collaborations that have, we believe, helped with the International Year of Indigenous Languages, and that have inspired some projects for the international decade.

As many of you may know, the United Nations has enacted two resolutions. One was for the International Year of Indigenous Languages (“IYIL”), in 2019, which in turn led to the approval of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (“IDIL”), which begins this year. There will be an official launch in Paris in December and it will run until 2032.

What we will talk about today is a conference that we organized and was supported by the Endangered Language Fund, as well as other organizations: the National Science Foundation, my university, Purdue University, and a number of Indigenous communities across the globe. We’ll talk about some projects that came out of that and where we are in terms of those projects. We believe those projects can be an example of positive collaborative partnerships between universities, academic scholars and Indigenous communities.

Doug Whalen:

The Endangered Language Fund is primarily a grant giving organization. We support research and revitalization of Indigenous languages throughout the world. We do have one initiative specifically for the Lewis and Clark tribes – that is, the tribes that were contacted by the Lewis and Clark expedition. As Shannon mentioned, we contributed to the IYIL conference, and we have been very fortunate to have many of our projects be close collaborations between academic linguists and community members, and we continue to push that. Those are the kinds of initiatives that Shannon ended up with for the IDIL.


I want to stress that it’s access to resources like the physical space at a university, the staff that work at universities, and funding agencies like Endangered Language Fund, that traditional academics have access to, and that allow us to provide interesting and fruitful resources to community members, and we’ll talk about that here.

In 2019, we held a conference at our university, Purdue University Fort Wayne, in November and December, celebrating the International Year. We had over 400 participants. These were primarily Indigenous community members from every continent across the globe. We also had academic scholars, policymakers, human rights attorneys, and I believe we were fortunate enough to have the majority of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (“UNESCO”) IYIL Steering Committee with us, which was greatly appreciated because their presence allowed us to secure even more funding. One of the things that was interesting as an organizer is that despite the relationship that the U.S. federal government has with UNESCO, a lot of universities are very excited to have opportunities to work with UNESCO and to share that with the broader community. UNESCO’s presence actually added a lot to our event in that it inspired our administrators to provide more funding. We received 75,000 dollar from our university, and all that money was used to pay for Indigenous people to fly to our city and to stay at the conference. I don’t believe that would have happened if we had not had UNESCO involved. That involvement had a huge impact on our ability to get resources in the hands of Indigenous community members.

We had several Indigenous community partners, which was also crucial for the success of the event. The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma partnered with us. We are on their historic lands. We also had the American Indian Language Development Institute and several other highly respected Indigenous organizations that had trust in us, that lent us their good name, and gave us guidance in the organizing and planning of the events. That was absolutely crucial. We also partnered with the Smithsonian Institution and their Mother Tongue Film Festival. We were able to secure a historic theater here in the downtown area that showed some of the films from the Smithsonian Mother Tongue Film Festival.

One of the surprises for us as organizers was that in UNESCO’s evaluation and assessment of the International Year, which was published in their evaluation handbook, identified our event as one of the most important events in North America. This was a shock to us. What happened as the UNESCO team was assessing the global events? People that had attended our conference began to talk about it and share it with them. So many people did that, that they actually reached out to us to find out what we had done. I’ll just say that we listened to Indigenous folks and we let them lead the way. We had the material resources, but we let them guide us in how to organize the event, how to structure the event, how to organize talks, who to invite. I think that made the event special, as the participants described it, letting it be not only truly community based, but in many ways Indigenous community led. We were very proud to be recognized for the efforts in the work we did, and it is a testament to the funds and resources that were given to us and the trust as well.

Out of that conference, we came up with some action items. We had several meetings at the end of the conference. We had a meeting with the Steering Committee members that had been here from IYIL. We had meetings with Indigenous groups that had sponsored us. We came up with some action items that we could do here at our campus in partnership with organizations like the Endangered Language Fund, in partnership with the UNESCO Decade, and in partnership with many of the Indigenous groups that had supported us and given us their trust.

Through the follow-up meetings after the conference with participants, we arrived at the conclusion that meaningful educational opportunities were desired by the Indigenous communities. Also, many of the Indigenous communities that were here from across the globe wanted access to English as a tool to advocate for their linguistic human rights. As a linguist and a scholar, I was a little surprised by this, because I’ve been trained to believe that English is a colonial language. The message that we received was that English does not belong to the colonizers any longer, and it is a useful tool for many of these communities to advocate for their linguistic and human rights, and they would like more access to that tool. We also had a number of Indigenous poets and artists at the event, which was really special, and there was a request that there be more outlets for the Indigenous arts. Then finally, this fourth request has only recently emerged: Indigenous communities desire assistance building Indigenous colleges and universities, primarily in the Global South.

In 2019, I traveled with my colleague, who is also my wife to the United Nations (“UN”) in Geneva and we sat in a room with folks like Aleksei. I think there were about eight of us, and we got to work on the resolution for the IDIL. It sounds very exotic and fun, but as you all know, drafting a document by committee is always a challenge. But it was a lot of fun and we went back in 2022 with the projects that I’m discussing today to get feedback from those UNESCO IDIL Steering Committee members and folks to help us improve the projects that we were developing at the time. All the projects are being implemented at the moment, so it is very useful to be on the ground chatting with our colleagues and working in the communities, but also at the high level in Geneva or New York, talking to the policymakers.

One of the things requested was meaningful educational opportunities. There were a lot of ideas concerning this. We landed on the fact that many community members expressed a desire to have the skills to develop their own language programs, whether that be in their homes with their family or in their communities as part of their schools, or even at larger levels trying to influence their nation state governments. With my colleague Candice Galla, who is Hawaiian, we set about drafting a plan for an Indigenous Massive Open Online Course (“MOOC”) that would be free. It would provide learning opportunities for language policy planning and implementation as well as assessment. We began developing a skeleton curriculum and we sent that out to some Indigenous advisors that are both in communities but also in higher education as well as in policymaking. We got feedback on that, and in August we secured 50,000 dollars to develop the MOOC with the University of British Columbia and Purdue University as partners. The MOOC will be distributed by edX.

We hoped the 50,000 dollars would pay for some kind of credit for the students, but unfortunately that is the cost of producing the MOOC. That is unfortunate for us, but we will use the majority of the money for translation. We will be translating the course initially into five dominant global languages, so that Indigenous peoples across the globe that have access to those dominant languages will be able to navigate the course. We have funding to add an additional three dominant languages in the second year. We also secured funding to pay consultants. The course consultants will be from Indigenous communities. We have five Indigenous community leaders that have been recognized for their language programming. We will use them to develop case studies in the MOOC. We have also reached out to some global Indigenous colleges and universities and we are partnering with them. They will be using our MOOC in their curriculum and allowing their students to get credit for the MOOC. It will be free to all that take it, and it will start enrolling students in July of next summer.

The next outcome is that the Indigenous communities globally wanted access to English. At my university, we have a teacher program where we have pre-professionals that want to be English language teachers. We built into four of the required courses a program called the English Language Partners Program. Our students in these courses are required to offer a one hour a week English course virtually. To date, we have served 600 students globally and fifty of our students have participated in the program. At the moment we have eighty Indigenous community members across the globe in our classrooms learning English. These include Indigenous peoples from Nepal, Bangladesh and Indonesia that are part of a group of Indigenous people that work in Indigenous media. They have a satellite television network, a cable television network, and 28 radio stations. These Indigenous community members are learning English so that they can broadcast in English to reach a wider audience to discuss Indigenous human rights and Indigenous linguistic rights. We are also working with a group in Ecuador at a university there. Their students are learning English. This is an Indigenous university. We also have a small group of Indigenous activists that hope to be in New York in the spring advocating for their human rights. We’re very excited about this program.

As part of the program, we have asked the Indigenous students to teach our students aspects of their Indigenous languages. The course is twelve weeks. It is offered twice a year, so students can take up to twenty four weeks. In four of those weeks, two per semester, we ask that the Indigenous students teach our students about their communities and about their language. That has had a profound impact on our students and our classrooms, which we’re very excited about.

The other request was that we develop an Indigenous literary arts journal. We had a number of Indigenous poets at our event, and some of our keynote events at the conference in 2019 were poetry readings. This was a quite remarkable experience for me as a linguist to experience the language arts in this way. Purdue University has committed to funding an online or a virtual language arts journal. It will be free to communities. The publications will be in the Indigenous language and the dominant language of the artist’s choice. We want the work to be available in the Indigenous language and the Indigenous script, but we would also like it to be available to others in some kind of translated form, so that will be how they are produced. The Indigenous artist will determine that. The journal will be launched in September of 2024. We are working on the platform at the moment. It will be available as a print on demand download at cost. We will make no money from this and we have two Indigenous university partners at the moment. We will be using this journal to help them with some curriculum design and we hope that the journal will be a part of other curricula at universities across the globe, as well as just being a resource for Indigenous artists to get their work out into a wider audience.

One of the things that also came out of discussions during the IYIL, but that we did not include in our action items because we thought it was too ambitious and beyond the scope of our talents and resources, was the desire to develop Indigenous colleges and universities in the Global South. However, a number of participants at the conference in 2019 stayed in contact with me. They were very persistent. Right now, we have a team from Purdue University and Columbia Teachers College and some independent contractors. We are working with Mon National College, which is in the liberated zone of Myanmar. As you may know, there is a civil war there, but there is an area of the country that is not caught up in the civil war and is a safe zone. This is an ethnic/ Indigenous community that has a long history of education, and we are working with them to build a university. They have just started courses this year. We’re doing training, helping them develop some of their degrees, and working with them on getting accreditation in the United States for their university. We’re also working with Amawtay Wasi Indigenous University in Ecuador. I understand it’s only the second Indigenous university in South America. We’re working with them on some strategic planning, some course development, and they’re one of our lead partners with our online MOOC. We didn’t think we had the resources to do this kind of work, but it turns out that through some strategic partnerships, we’ve been able to do it.

In closing, there is much to be done. I’ve asked some of my colleagues in the Indigenous communities what is best for us in terms of helping them. It is the access to the material resources, the intellectual, financial, and human resources, that they find most helpful. They find that most helpful when we follow the best practices of community-led work. We all have different notions of what that means, but the specific communities that we’ve been fortunate to work with have made it very clear to us what it means to them, and we try to honor that.

Part two: Three Algonquian Community Revitalization Projects: Community Commonalities and Differences, and Current Challenges for Effective Academic Support

Andy Cowell:

We have just had a very interesting and very broad, high-level discussion of the IDIL. I thought it would be nice to try to complement this with a narrow, Algonquian-specific look at three projects that are going on right now in three different Algonquian communities. I am going to start very local, but I’m going to build to many of the same points that were just made by Shannon.

I’m talking specifically about the Aaniiih (Gros Ventre) at the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana; the Northern Arapaho at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, and the Southern Arapaho in Oklahoma.

The Northern Arapaho have one hundred or more fluent speakers. That’s not many, but the Aaniiih have no remaining native fluent speakers at this point. The Southern Arapaho, as we heard from Billie Sutton, also have no remaining native fluent speakers. That’s the context for the particular efforts I’ll be describing. I want to quickly go through a number of questions that one might pose about language revitalization programs in order to compare these three communities. What you’re going to see is that even though Northern and Southern Arapaho speak the same language, radical differences occur in the way the communities are approaching revitalization. Aaniiih is either a distant dialect or a closely related language with Arapaho, and is also culturally closely associated with Arapaho, but again turns out to be quite different in many ways.

For example, how do they set up their language programs? The Northern Arapaho are extremely decentralized and dispersed in the way they’ve set up their program. They have a tribal college which is independent, multiple independent school districts, and multiple independent immersion schools, which are also independent from charter schools and contract schools. There is no actual tribal language officer per se, and there is lots of local pressure for local control. The Southern Arapaho, in contrast, are highly centralized in the way they set up their language program, with a single office providing service to all the different local communities. The Aaniiih are semi-centralized, probably closer to the Southern Arapaho than the Northern. They also have a single language office, but they also have an independent tribal college and semi-independent local schools.

Another criterion to consider is attitudes towards literacy. The Northern Arapaho have been heavily literacy-focused. Many of their programs start with teaching the alphabet before the students even start learning the language. Then they start learning to write the language, and then they start learning to speak the language. The Southern Arapaho are doing exactly the opposite. They are avoiding the use of writing and, at least in the specific program I work with, their approach is almost entirely oral. They are just now starting to slowly increase literacy or introduce literacy. The Aaniiih are somewhere in the middle in this regard.

Another question is the role of culture in language programs. Among the Northern Arapaho, as I’ve gone to immersion programs in immersion camps or immersion schools, I have seen that immersion is often lost because of the strong desire to carry on culture and transmit cultural knowledge. Culture almost seems to trump language, in the sense that cultural information needs to be expressed in English in most cases for children who don’t know Arapaho. Among the Southern Arapaho, I see very much the opposite. There’s a very strong focus on the language itself as a communicative tool. In the language sessions I’ve been involved with, there is not typically a huge amount of cultural content. That’s not to say that culture isn’t important there, or that cultural content isn’t being conveyed by other means. But it is very interesting to me to see the contrast in the culture-language balance in those two Arapaho community language efforts. The Aaniiih again are somewhat between the two extremes, though closer to the Northern Arapaho. A lot of their language teachers are also ceremonial leaders.

One can also consider the target for revitalization. The Northern Arapaho have decided they would like to get Arapaho into all the schools and all the school districts. They want all children exposed to the language. There are hundreds of children who are receiving some Arapaho instruction. The Aaniih, on the other hand, have decided that they want to develop a small group of adult apprentices and then eventually create an immersion school after that. The Southern Arapaho right now also are focused on a small group of adult apprentices, with secondary provision for community classes. The Northern Arapaho are very ambitious and broad in the scope of who they’re trying to convey the language to. The other groups for the moment are much narrower.

Another issue is attitudes towards language innovation. The Aaniiih are perfectly happy with language engineering. They’re actually starting to revive and teach older versions of the language from 1900 (as compared to newer versions of the language of the last generation), because the language has changed and developed in ways that have complicated it in the last generation or two of speakers. They’re saying, “okay, none of us use this verb inflection from 1900, but this is the verb inflection we’re just going to start using as of today, and we’re going to start teaching that verb inflection in our schools.” The Northern Arapaho are the extreme opposite of that: their attitude is “this is what the elders say today, and this is what we’re going to learn today.” I’m taking no positions on which is the right or wrong method. I’m just pointing out the very different attitudes. The Southern Arapaho would be kind of in the middle. They’re willing to learn Northern Arapaho, and to work with the Northern Arapaho speakers and northern dialect. That has been a problem for certain individuals, but within the language program generally it has been more or less broadly accepted, although they’re starting now to move towards reviving the southern pronunciation. If you listened closely to Billie when she was speaking, she talked about the Cheyenne. She said “hitešiino’” which is a Southern Arapaho pronunciation, whereas I said “hitesiino’” when I talked about the land acknowledgment yesterday, which is northern pronunciation.

Another question is who are the teachers? For the Northern Arapaho, it is the elder speakers who have been the teachers, and now a newer, younger generation is just starting to be developed. That younger generation has had a lot of contact with the existing native speakers. Among the Southern Arapaho, we’re talking about brand new language learners. Many of the people that I’m working with among the Southern Arapaho started with literally one or two words of Arapaho knowledge. They’re building from a low baseline of knowledge, and they have had no contact with native fluent Southern Arapaho speakers for years, although they do have contact with Northern Arapaho speakers now. The Aaniiih are somewhat similar in this regard, with many of the new learners starting from a low baseline. But among the Aaniiih there are several very good second language speakers, who worked with their grandparents on their own and acquired the language as a kind of “native” second language, if you want to put it that way. Those people are crucial in the Aaniiih revitalization because they can then teach and pass on the language to this new generation of brand new learners, and that kind of cohort wasn’t available for the Southern Arapaho.

I’ll quickly discuss the role of technology and print. There is very low use of technology among the Aaniiih, very high use among the Northern Arapaho, and a medium amount of use among the Southern Arapaho. For the Northern Arapaho, dictionaries are everywhere, curricular materials everywhere. There are many print materials that are accessible and available, whereas in the Southern Arapaho case, especially because of the emphasis on orality, there is very little in print, though there are some interesting things on the web. Billie, for example, is posting really interesting YouTubes, but curricular material is just not easily available in the community.

And then there’s the role of the tribal governments. For the Northern Arapaho, there is very little direct funding of the language programs, which rely heavily on grants or local school sources. In contrast the Southern Arapaho, especially recently, have received very extensive funding from the tribal government.

I’ll add one final thing. The only thing that these programs have in common is that the linguist working with them – that is to say, me – has not been very involved with tribal leadership. I don’t go to tribal council meetings. I haven’t been asked to present a lot of discussion of linguistic matters at that level. Why is that? Partly it’s been my decision, partly it’s been a tribal decision. But I think it’s problematic, especially in light of the IDIL.

The lesson here is that there is a massive amount of difference “on the ground” among these three revitalization programs, despite the languages and historical cultures being quite similar. The question you might be asking is how is the global International Decade of Indigenous Languages and the potential global programs going to interface with these radical differences at the micro-level or local level?

We can come up with some generalizations. We can talk about a “speaker-based” revitalization for the Northern Arapaho, as opposed to what I might call “post-speaker-based” revitalization for the Southern Arapaho and Aaniiih. In communities where you do not have native fluent speakers available, this forces certain kinds of choices that you just have to make. The Northern Arapaho are making different choices. When you have elders present who speak the language, they tend to encourage their own language to be the one that is passed on. When there are no more elders and young people are making all the decisions about what to do, they may feel more freedom to say: “we’re just going to go back to the grammar book, and we’re going to take this form from 1900, and we’re going to start using it because it’s easier.”

But even within the two post-speaker programs, the Aaniiih have a balanced orality/literacy model, while the Southern Arapaho are much more oral-focused. The Aaniiih are very innovative regarding language engineering. The Southern Arapaho are a little bit more conservative in that way. And they both have different targets for what they want to do next. We can’t just use demography and history to explain these differences. The differences are cultural and tribal and tribes are very, very different.

So what do we do with all this? How can we turn all that diversity into anything that coheres, for unified action during the IDIL? What are the obstacles right now to further success in these programs? I’ll skip the obvious obstacles, like racism, economic marginalization, and the pressure of globalization. I’m trying to take a much more internal perspective. For the Aaniiih, there is a lack of enough current good second-language speakers to fully develop the younger cohort of speakers. For the Northern Arapaho, there is a lack of language skills among a younger cohort being pressed into school service before reaching adequate language levels. In the Southern Arapaho, we see a lack of enough daily exposure to the language, and also pressure to share the language, in my opinion, sometimes too broadly and too shallowly, among the larger community, at the expense of their own learning.

To summarize, the one thing I see in common is that we have a bottleneck generation of young future speakers. These are people in their twenties, thirties and forties, who have shown true commitment to the language. In all communities, they’re in a minority in their age group. In many cases they are learning the language from low baselines. They absolutely must become fluent. If this bottleneck generation is lost, then we’ll be in a situation where we have people who’ve never heard the language in their life, who know nothing of it, and we truly are starting from ground zero. In contrast, this bottleneck generation has had the ability to interact on some levels with elders, or at least with good second language speakers. But in many cases, this generation is not getting adequate language input and language learning time. They are being put into school teaching positions without adequate knowledge, or being sent out into the community without adequate knowledge, not at their own choice, but because of political pressures in the community to do that. There is a desire to spread the language as rapidly as possible. The risk is that we get rapid spread of a very shallow, low level language competency, as opposed to developing rich language competency in this small group of bottleneck speakers, who will then later share the language more broadly.

Why is this? It’s often political pressure that they’re getting, and we can easily understand this. Tribal Councils say: “hey, why aren’t my family getting the language? Why isn’t my kid being exposed to the language?” And their constituents ask them the same question. But this political pressure then comes down on the language workers. In all three communities, I see this, and it is detrimental to adequate acquisition of the language at a high level. The young bottleneck learners are facing too much political pressure to do too much too soon.

At the same time, despite lots of political pressure from above, they actually don’t have a lot of technical guidance and assistance from above to learn as quickly as possible. They are often left to figure things out on their own. They go to conferences in what I would call the ”language conference” cycle, which many of you, as Indigenous activists or academics, are familiar with. Over and over we go to these conferences, over and over we hear presentations, and then community members go home, and they can’t implement those ideas, or many of the proposals may not be relevant to their local contexts, because the conferences are so global in scope.

In contrast, what we just saw in the presentation about the IDIL is super interesting and I think super valuable and important, and we have to build on that momentum. The key factors that Shannon talked about were, first of all, vertically integrated conferences. Often we have linguists all talking together. We have lawyers all talking together. We have tribal leaders at the NCAI all talking together. We have community activists talking together. But none of those people by themselves can actually make any decisions and then implement them. Everyone goes to their own conference on their own level in the hierarchy, and then the flail because the rest of the hierarchy isn’t integrated with them. The IDIL is a fantastic opportunity to do more of exactly what Fort Wayne is doing, and you can see how it would actually work in these three particular cases.

We ought to have smaller conferences, not conferences where we learn about every possible language and every possible technique, but rather language conferences where we recognize the existence of a post-speaker revitalization program as opposed to a speaker revitalization program, and orient those conferences in that kind of way. Even more importantly, we need to do a much better job of vertically integrating the levels. The linguists, the community language activists, the learners, and the political leaders need to be all present at the same conference talking to each other, because really that’s the only way important decisions can be made correctly, with the right information, and then implemented. What was so interesting about the presentation about the IDIL were the action items that came out of the conference. As all of us know here at the Algonquian Conference, you can go to twenty of these things for twenty years without ever encountering any action item other than “we’ve got to get the proceedings edited.”

How do we convert our conferences into vertically-integrated, action-oriented conferences,

where the political decision-makers that can make the decisions are present and can learn the kinds of decisions that need to be made, with reasonable expectations, while the so-called lower-level people can also get the expertise and have the authority to enact the decisions that are made?

You can see that the notion of horizontal dispersal is running through this talk. On the local tribal level, rather than gaining more wisdom and language knowledge, the core learners are getting stuck at a certain level of ability, and their efforts are being dispersed by teaching once-a-week community classes. It is too much to try to provide Arapaho language instruction to every single child in the entire reservation, and on top of that, this often ends up just being “here are the colors, here are the numbers, here are five animals” and things like that. That is just not going to get us to language revitalization. We need to give those learners some shelter, to get out of that horizontal dispersion mode and improve the depth of their knowledge. The only way that’s going to happen is if political leaders recognize the realities of what language learning is all about, how difficult it is, and are willing to stand up to their constituents and say: “look, we have to have incubation, a nest, for this bottleneck generation of twenty or thirty people.” If we can protect them and really support them, then the next generation is the one where these people will be fluent and we can start our immersion schools and we can be teaching hundreds of people. That’s why I often talk about an hourglass model: all the fluent elders; the bottleneck generation; and then a big future generation of fluent children. This can only happen if the people making the decisions understand that model, and the need to get the bottleneck generation through that challenging spot by focusing narrowly on them. That’s only going to happen if we can have more vertically integrated conferences, such as we’re trying to have here. And of course the most important vertical integration of all is the generations in the community, and passing the language down from one to the next successfully.

As Fort Wayne has shown, this is a model that can lead to action and it can lead to results. That’s how I see the local Algonquin situations interacting with the potential of the IDIL, and of the model that we’ve seen from Fort Wayne.

Part three: Question and Answer


I’m wondering if for these three groups, you had a funding group outside of the tribe. One of the things that you find as a linguist or even as a community activist is that you’re always doing things with grants, or your funding lasts only through a certain administration. I think having some of the larger funding sources would be key

The other question that I’ve been wondering about is how do we deal with the burnout that our language activists are currently experiencing, both on a spiritual and an emotional level, but also financially? Sometimes they just can’t keep doing it because they’re paid so little.


For these three communities, there’s a linear relationship between the amount of central tribal government support and the success of the program. In other words, the Northern Arapaho are very, very heavily dependent on grants and the result is you see localized grants to a particular school or a particular college, which runs for three years, but doesn’t interact with the other people in the community and then runs out. The dispersal of effort among the Northern Arapaho is partly a cultural decision, but it’s partly a result of engaging in that grant cycle.

In contrast the Southern Arapaho have committed a very large sum of money from the tribe – six or seven figures – over multiple years to the program. The program is much more stable and is making much more progress. The Aaniiih would be right in the middle there. There’s a lot of literature that shows that chasing the grants doesn’t lead to tribal sovereignty; it doesn’t lead to self-determination. It just leads to you chasing money that someone else wants to give you to do what they want you to do. I think that’s another key thing that needs to be recognized in the IDIL. The IDIL can’t be about a bunch of grant money on three year cycles. It needs to be about mechanisms for building continuity in the funding.

As far as the burn out, it is tough to spend your day trying to learn the language, and then spend your evening trying to go teach the language and drive, for example, 60 miles to Weatherford OK, and the next day drive over to Canton or Geary OK and that kind of thing. That has to be done, but we have to really be careful not to burn out our linguists, our language activists, and language learners.


The first question I have is for Shannon. English is a tool for Indigenous peoples. Does this distinguish between standardized and minoritized English’s? Like different kinds of English pidgins? Next, how does English become a tool for developing critical mass within Indigenous communities? For example, are the Indigenous communities you’re working with and teaching English classes to also in conversations with each other? If you could just give an overview of how this works, how English becomes a tool for Indigenous peoples, and how we can mobilize this as community members throughout the decade, that would be great.


I can’t speak for the Indigenous community members that requested that they have access to English, so I want to be very careful in my response. I think that historically, multilingualism was kind of a norm for many Indigenous communities. It’s a norm today and in my experience, the community members that we’re fortunate enough to work with, especially those that have requested English, see English as just another resource. It does have this colonial past and many of these Indigenous peoples also speak Spanish and Russian or other colonial languages besides English. They really see English as just a tool, a tool that they want to use on their own terms. When it comes to this ideology of a standard English, we introduce that to them. The truth is, the vast majority of English speakers in the world are non-native speakers talking to non-native speakers, so we don’t push the standard language ideology. We actually try to deconstruct it and focus on communicative competence for the goals of the learners and our partners. We try to avoid this idea of standard language, standard English, and we try to focus on the communicative needs of the individuals in the classrooms.

Moving on to the second part, what’s really fascinating for us is that we do have courses that involve cohorts from more than one region. We have a group from Nepal, we have a group from Ecuador, we have several groups from Myanmar, but we also have mixed courses where people from Ecuador, people from Nepal, people from Bangladesh, people from Myanmar are getting together and we leave it open to the students as to which kind of courses they want to be in. They have different motivations. We are finding what is really exciting and unintended is the relationship building that is now happening with the students globally. They’re creating conversations outside of the formal classrooms that we offer. We have once-a-week classes. What we’re finding is our tutors and their students are meeting two, three, four times a week, pursuing other kinds of conversations and activities beyond. We’re very excited about that on our side.


I don’t have direct experience, but it does remind me of the massive debates about even US dialects and how to register that. Those are quite contentious in many cases, and it is really the same issue in each case. I think most people have come to realize that every language has lots of registers, and if you want to conduct something that needs a formal English register, then it helps to have that under your control. Does that make it better? No. But every register has its uses, and so the more you want to make use of that register, it probably makes sense to learn that register and stay in that register.


You mentioned this a little bit before, about getting a breadth of people kick-started, as opposed to delving deep into the language for a few people. One of the things I was wondering is when you’re looking at these categories you talked about, in all these programs you’re looking at, do you notice there’s a significant difference in each of those categories if it involves a broad audience as opposed to few people getting really deep into the language?


It’s a really complicated issue. In a way, language revitalization needs community support. If most people in the community aren’t supportive of it, it’s really hard to do it. One of the ways to build the support is to get out there and teach the language to a lot of different people, let them hear it, expose them to it. Then they all say “yes” to the council person or the leader – “this is where we want to invest the money for our people.” It’s undeniable that leaders face political pressure. At the same time, I just don’t think those kinds of broad programs lead to major long-lasting gains. If we conceive of them as language awareness programs and programs for building language support, that’s fine. We should do that.

I feel the same pressures myself. People say, “can you teach me beginning Arapaho?” I always want to say that I’d rather work with the six really advanced master apprentices who are really making a huge amount of progress. As a linguist, can explain grammar points to them that it’s hard for the native speakers to explain. I don’t really want to disperse my time by teaching someone how to say “hello” and how to say “goodbye.” At the same time, as a linguist I’m working for the tribes, trying to pass on knowledge that elders gave me, that they hoped I would pass on, and so I have to recognize those same pressures. I do need to go out and be willing to help all kinds of different people. But it’s got to be controlled, and it’s got to be really carefully and intentionally thought out as to how you balance between shallow dispersion of the language all over the place and narrow but rich delivery. I just worry that in many cases, that conversation is not really happening as clearly as it needs to happen. I talk to some of the people who are being asked to do all these extra things after they’ve put in a full day’s work. Like, “go out now at seven pm and teach this program in the evening. Drive through the winter for an hour and spend your time teaching people how to say “hello” and “goodbye,” and then drive back home and get home by ten. That’s the balance. It’s a tricky balance, but I think we need to more intentionally think about how to do that balance.


I appreciate that. It is not very often that you see linguists or people who are interested in formal linguistic sciences looking at these kinds of community issues. From your observations, could having conversations with communities, related to the specific topics you discuss, help prevent plateaus in their trajectory of reclamation?


This is going to be easy for me to say because I’m not a tribal person, I’m not an Indigenous leader. But when I said that we need to have conferences that are more narrowly focused, and I think that includes “language group” conferences for related languages. We’ve been talking a lot about under-resourced languages. How do we leverage resources from one language to another language? I know people get concerned that they are having to use another group’s materials some time, or things may not perfectly fit their language when they have to work across multiple communities.

The problem is, if you have a small group of that bottleneck generation, if you could have one of those people delivering services to two or more tribes that could be a big advantage. Think of the Potawatomi, who have many different communities around the US for example. I know that each community has an interest in developing their own unique programs for their needs, but at the same time, you’ve then got seven different bottlenecks and potentially linguists are part of those bottlenecks as well, asked to work with six or seven different groups. It is easy for me to say this as an individual coming out of a university, not having to represent a community, but to the extent that that we can have closely connected languages work together, and even have one local community delivering services to another local community, so that the bottleneck people are working with many different communities, that would be a huge help.

Hopefully the IDIL can help brings these issue to the attention of Indigenous leaders, so that they’re aware of the pressure they may be putting on these bottleneck generations in ways that may be unhelpful.


Following up on your point, I have gone to talks about communities, where they say this particular First Nation or community wants this, they want X, Y and Z. The question that I and some others have been wondering is whether it is often not the case that there’s not really just one community? There are many different groups within a community. There are the elders who value certain things. There are leaders who value other things. There will be the teenagers, the youth, who value having support for using the language on mobile gadgets, for instance. How do you deal with this sort of multitude of groups and needs and interests? Perhaps as a follow up to what you were saying, could it be in a sense that the needs of the young people might be the same across multiple first nations, and maybe the needs of the elders might be similar, so that you might actually want to foster collaboration across these subgroups, across the First Nations? You mentioned that there might be people who are interested in technology individually, in communities. Maybe focusing on collaboration across communities interested in technology might be a way of proceeding. Essentially, how do you deal with these sorts of multitudes of interests?


Yes, not only do you have these three communities that are so different from each other, but especially within the Northern Arapaho community, there’s so many different local independent entities and needs there as well. So how does all the global and local diversity get channeled into some set of unitary recommendations or unitary responses? It can’t be just one response, obviously, but at the same time, it can’t be hundreds or thousands. It’s the political leadership that is the key. I’m hoping that the International Decade elevates language to a higher political attention level, where political leaders see the opportunity, as Shannon showed us, and also hopefully feel the pressure or the obligation to step into language in a deeper way than they have been doing: not just issue a proclamation that says we support our language, and please make sure it gets taught, but actually learn from the people at conferences like this. Then people like us, the linguists, the community activists, the speakers, can share the reality of what we need, and what we can do, and what we can’t do. We want to be able to say things like “We need your guidance. We need your funding. We need your decision making. We can’t just do this by making it up on our own.” Unfortunately, I think that that’s often still what happens in a lot of communities. Language programs are left under-supported, and not well-understood.


Sometimes it seems that language is not the only issue that you’re dealing with in communities. There are social issues, employment, health, and many other things.

Billie Sutton:

I worked with our language program for a long time, wrote a curriculum, and did some teaching in the evenings, and drove one hour to work, one hour home, and then sometimes an hour to our communities to teach some classes. I did get burnt out, I did. I was on the road a long time, and that was just taxing on me, especially as I got older. I left the language program to go into politics. My elders in my community encouraged me. It would take several years before I decided to do it, but I went on ahead and took that step, and I won the legislator position in my area.

Something I noticed in our tribal government is that I don’t think any one of them were fluent. They didn’t see it as an urgency the way I did. When funding time came up for the program, all they were looking at was: “Well, what are you doing, and what are the results?” It’s like they wanted immediate results, and that doesn’t happen, so political leaders do not understand the reality of language acquisition and the years that it takes, and how taxing it is on your own brain when you’re trying to learn all day long and then have to go try to teach it to satisfy the politics. I was fortunate enough to be there in the government, and I guess that’s why I was supposed to be there and become a politician. I was able to tell the other legislators the struggle that we have just learning the language. I had to tell them about a typical day when I was there, and they didn’t understand that. They were just thinking of immediate results and “what are you doing in the communities”? That’s all they were thinking.

None of them were fluent. Once I explained a typical day and how long it takes and how difficult Arapaho is to learn and how little resources we had when I started working there, then we doubled our funding for the language program. We do need to speak to the politicians, but the politicians need to understand they need to go speak to our language programs, too, because I don’t think one of them ever visited there. I had the opportunity to tell them: “You need to go visit a language program and see what they’re doing and see the resources that they have and what they’re coming out with, what they’re producing. Then go to a language class yourself.” They didn’t. That’s the issue that we had in our tribes. I understand there are a lot of pressing issues. You’re correct on that. Poverty, substance abuse. There are a lot of issues that need to be tackled. Sometimes I would drive for a whole hour for the evening classes and then nobody would show up, but they all wanted us to do it. The people in the community wanted us to do it, but I’m one of those that thinks we need to go after those younger kids.

In my community, there’s nobody for me to talk to or practice with or anything. I struggle there trying to have a conversation. I pick up books. I call Dr. Cowell all the time. I email him constantly. I do what I can with what I learn. I try to get it out to people the best way I know how, which is YouTube, Facebook. So that’s what I do. But I’m one of those – I feel the urgency. I feel the need to get it into our school, to get a language class into our schools, not only to light a fire under our youth to learn the language, because that’s where we’re going to get our future: from fluent speakers. But also with language instruction comes cultural instruction too. In my community, those kids aren’t getting it. They’re being assimilated. They are assimilated. You know, I can get onto one of them – “you’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to have respect.” They’ll look at me with big eyes because I did that.

When I retired from teaching IT I worked for a little bit as a substitute teacher in my hometown. Once they started getting that cultural instruction and a little bit of language shared with them in between classes, they were better behaved. They had focus and they had pride. Another thing I want to say about evening instruction is that we can’t compete. Language instructors cannot compete with sports. Our kids are going to play sports. Our parents are going to watch our kids go play sports. We cannot compete with sports. Even after-school instruction is hard to do, because once a kid has been in a classroom in school all day long, do they really want to go to school another hour? They don’t. I’m one of those that believe we need to get them in our schools; our public schools. We need to get some teachers, at least to a point where we can call somebody, say, “hey, how do you say this? What would we say for this term,” to have somebody there. I’ve seen it done in immersion schools, where they have the younger teachers give instructions, and then when they didn’t know how to say something, an elder was there for a period of time helping them.


I’m sorry if I’m going to say something obvious, but this discussion about how we attend to all the needs of the community in learning the language is not happening in the larger outside world. What I’m talking about is: language learning is still happening in the midst of a wider community using the dominant language, and what we’re not seeing necessarily is the acceptance by those wider dominant communities of Indigenous peoples learning and preserving their Indigenous language. If you think about outside of this group of people at this conference, a regular person off the street is not going to know anything about the Indigenous language of the area they’re in. They’re not going to suspect the troubles that Indigenous communities are going through by trying to learn the language, trying to preserve it, and trying to make sure that the culture stays together, stays put. I feel like we need to take a step back and think about broader implications of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. How might it help us think about how the global community in general can contribute to supporting these initiatives, and actually creating the type of language ideologies that would nurture language revitalization?


I have a question about the narrower issue of funding. Andy, you said in your comments that the three year grant funding cycle is not very functional. I think Chief Barnes will probably touch on this in his remarks, that really the Decade gives us the opportunity for a decade of planning. One thing that I would really love to see us do, in one of the papers or in discourse coming out of this, is to propose some alternative funding opportunities or structures to the U.S. Federal Government. There’s a whole statutory regime, the Esther Martinez Language Preservation Act, and we have the ear of federal lawmakers. What do we want them to do? What actually would support language revitalization and education in communities? We keep criticizing the three year funding cycle and the competitive nature of it, but I don’t know if we’ve proposed a very strong alternative or maybe a menu of choices. Maybe that’s something that also our Indigenous roundtable could raise as the day continues. I think Justin Neely also has comments along these lines because I’ve heard him make them before and maybe he’ll raise that as well.


Could we propose some kind of automated funding in the same way that certain kinds of other government programs just flow based on membership or things like that?

But more generally, to return to a key message of this session, tribes and tribal political leaders need to have a better appreciation of the long-term nature of a language-revitalization program, and the need for stable, long-term tribal support, both politically and financially. Shannon, Monica and Doug’s presentation was a great example of how collaborative partnerships and education initiatives can be started which have the potential to be long-lasting and transformative. They also illustrated how Indigenous communities can better support each other. Hopefully we can all take from this session, and from this conference overall, more inspiration to think bigger, broader, and deeper, to escape some of the pigeon-holes we find ourselves in when we lose interconnectivity between communities, linguists, tribal leaders, and politicians.