Alaska has a “linguistic emergency,” according to the Alaskan Gov. Bill Walker. A report warned earlier this year that all of the state’s 20 Native American languages might cease to exist by the end of this century, if the state did not act.
American policies, particularly in the six decades between the 1870s and 1930s, suppressed Native American languages and culture. It was only after years of activism by indigenous leaders that the Native American Languages Act was passed in 1990, which allowed for the preservation and protection of indigenous languages. Nonetheless, many Native American languages have been on the verge of extinction for the past many years.
Languages carry deep cultural knowledge and insights. So, what does the loss of these languages mean in terms of our understanding of the world?
Embedded in indigenous languages, in particular, is knowledge about ecosystems, conservation methods, plant life, animal behavior and many other aspects of the natural world.
In Hawaiian traditions and belief systems, for example, the tree snails were connected to “the realm of the gods.” Hawaiian royalty revered them, which protected them from overharvesting.
The Bishop Museum in Honolulu holds a shell necklace, or lei, of Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii. It is made from tree snail shells, which signifies the high rank of female royalty. Wearing a shell was believed to provide “mana,” or spiritual power and a way to understand ancestral knowledge.
Many of these snails are now extinct and those remaining are threatened with extinction. Scientists are working with Hawaiian language experts to learn about the belief systems that once helped protect them and their habitats.
A Tool for Doctors
Words in indigenous languages can have cultural meanings, that can be lost during translation. Understanding the subtle differences can…