Revitalizing Native Cultures Through Language Preservation

with Julia Wakeford of the National Indian Education Association

For more than 150 years, the U.S. government forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Native American children to boarding schools in an attempt to assimilate them into American society, which resulted in the loss of tribal languages.

Julia Wakeford, Policy Director of the National Indian Education Association, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss the impact of the loss of languages, and efforts to preserve them today.

Posted on:

October 31, 2023

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: For centuries, Indigenous peoples have valued storytelling as a way to convey tales, lessons, and customs. It's through these oral traditions that Native Americans are able to preserve and promote cultural practices and languages. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. The Indian Civilization Act of 1819 created government-funded boarding schools where Indigenous children were forced to assimilate to American society. This resulted in the loss of a number of Native languages. Joining me to talk about the impact of this language loss and efforts to preserve them in schools today is Julia Wakeford. She is the Policy Director at the National Indian Education Association. And, Julia, thank you for joining us.

Wakeford: Thank you for having me.

Anderson: So your organization started in 1969. It was started by educators in Minnesota. What was going on at the time that made the founders feel they had to start something like this?

Wakeford: Across the country, educators saw in their classrooms that there wasn't a big enough space or a voice for their kids to see themselves accurately reflected. Their own determination had been taken away long before, and they were ready, and they were fighting, and were quick to say that we need to organize nationwide to make sure that our children are protected.

Anderson: And I'm really wondering about the practical reasons for all of us when it comes to why keeping these languages alive is so important.

Wakeford: Sure. For our own communities, languages, our languages are intrinsic to everything about us -- our governance structures, the way we interact with each other, the way we practice our culture, our traditions, our religion. Everything is intrinsically linked. You can't have your language without your culture, and you can't have your culture without your language. But nationwide, really, you see that if you take pride in this country and you take pride in the lands that we're on, and you take pride in the history, that the languages that have been a part of this land since time immemorial should be something to take pride in, too.

Anderson: And one of your pillars is to promote educational sovereignty. Explain what that means for people who don't know.

Wakeford: So you mentioned the Civilization Act, which was an attempt to take the self-determination out of Native communities, out of our governments, and to take the children as well, so that they could become assimilated, but beyond assimilated, they could no longer be Native. They had to be something else. Education sovereignty starts in 1969 at the convening of these educators, deciding to take back education for their students, for their communities, for their children. You see it in 1972 with the first Indian Education Act, 1975 with the Indian Education and Self-Determination Act. All of these were attempts to reclaim our ability to control our own narratives, to decide what's best for our communities. And that starts with your children. It starts with education. And that's where we get into education sovereignty.

Anderson: And you touched on the fact that one of the large reasons that these languages are in jeopardy is because of actions taken by the U.S. government in the past that really depleted the history and identity of Native American life. How much of that has changed in recent history? Has the government changed course on this?

Wakeford: Sure. In 2022, for the very first time, the Department of the Interior did a comprehensive first step, first review, of the boarding-school era and found that it wasn't just something that accidentally happened. It was a serious effort undertaken by the federal government to erase the culture and languages out of Native American children, because it was an easier way to battle Native tribes than waging war. In recent years, like this report, the federal government is finally starting to talk about what happened and talk about it in very realistic terms, the truth of the histories that we have always known. And one of the most exciting things is how much attention both the federal government and Congress have been paying to Native languages. In 2022 at the end of the 117th Congress, two major Native American language-preservation laws were passed with bipartisan support, and we're only seeing that increase. I think it's a combination of the Department of the Interior talking about this for the first time, the White House's support, bipartisan support in Congress, But I think it's also the spotlight that COVID put on our elders and how many of them were dying at such rapid rates. And how many of them are our language carriers.

Anderson: And quickly, if you can, what plans do you have for the future of the preservation of Native languages? What's in the works?

Wakeford: So we want to create a similar nationwide effort where you have all of these beautiful Native-language programs in individual tribes and individual language communities across the country. And we are looking to put those efforts together in tandem so that we can have a voice in the best way possible and work with this moment where it feels like people are paying attention, or people see the uniqueness and the beauty of our languages, and really move and mobilize on that.

Anderson: People are going to want to know more. What's your website? Where can they look?

Wakeford: They can look at On our website, you'll find our history and the history of Indian education, alongside curriculum supports for teachers, educators, and other resources.

Anderson: Julia Wakeford with the National Indian Education Association, thank you so much for being here.

Wakeford: Thank you.

Anderson: And thanks to you as well for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit I'm Tetiana Anderson. ♪♪ ♪♪

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