I got an e-mail today about a petition for preservation of Native languages, or more funding for the preservation. The National Alliance to Save Native Languages is petitioning congress to increase Native language program funding to at least $10 million - and I think it's a bargain.
If you figure about 200 surviving languages today (the estimates I've seen go anywhere from 170 to 225), this only leaves about $50,000 per year on each language. (Not that it would ever be split up in such a way.)
Even here in Alaska, there are at least 20 languages still up and kicking. I would hope that this winter's passing of Chief Marie Smith-Jones (the last fluent Eyak speaker) would serve as a wake-up call to just how fragile the Native languages are. It may be the first of the Alaska Native languages to go, but it certainly isn't the only one in danger.
I have two historical languages to navigate, Dena'ina Athabascan and Tlingit. Both are in great danger of being lost. I've heard many times that the way you can gauge the strength of a language is by how many children speak it, or how many children are being taught it. I'm happy to say that both of these languages are being taught, mostly, pushed by Native organizations and corporations.
But the numbers aren't good.
For this to be a real effort in which a large percentage of each culture could see true results, there must be combined efforts of the government, Native corporations, and individual cultural groups, including the communities. We're talking community programs, immersion programs, documented material, curriculum, etc., etc. There are efforts already going on, but there is much, much more to do before we have a chance here.
Some notable efforts right here in Anchorage include the new Alaska Native Cultural Charter school set to open this fall. They will introduce a Yup'ik immersion program for younger grades and after-school programs for other languages. The Alaska Native Heritage Center is involved in some language programs, including Dena'ina curriculum.
Here's one of many articles supporting just how important Native language preservation is. Take a look, and then sign the petition!