How indigenous tongues facing extinction are finding new life on community radio stations
Loris Taylor, the CEO and president of Native Public Media, still has the scars on her hands from when she was caught speaking Hopi in school and got the sharp end of the ruler as a result. "They hit so hard, the flesh was taken off," she remembers. "Deep down inside, it builds some resistance in you."
Now, she's at the forefront of a movement to revive dead and dying languages using an old medium: radio. As CEO and president of Native Public Media, she's lobbied the FCC and overseen projects to get increasingly rare tongues like Hopi onto airwaves so that Native Americans can keep their ancestors' ways of speaking alive—and pass those ways of speaking to new generations.
"At a certain time, people thought 'We live in a white man's world and have to change our language to make it.' But now we see how wrong that was."
Similar efforts are taking place worldwide. In Ireland, Dublin's youthful Top-40 Raidio Ri-Ra and Belfast's eclectic indie Raidio Failte have been broadcasting entirely in Irish for several years. In Washington, D.C. earlier this month, indigenous radio producers from Peru, Mexico, Canada, El Salvador, and a handful of other countries gathered for the "Our Voices on the Air" conference, organized by the 40-year-old nonprofit Cultural Survival and the Smithsonian's Recovering Voices program.
Following centuries of oppression that have marginalized minority languages, radio represents a modest but surprisingly promising way to reinvigorate the traditions keeping those languages alive. In the Maori community of New Zealand, for example, the combination of 21 radio stations and rigorous early childhood immersion programs have brought Maori-languages speakers from an all-time low of 24,000 in the 1980s to 131,000 in 2006, according to Mark Camp, deputy executive director at Cultural Survival.
"It's not a silver bullet, but it's an important piece," Camp says of radio. "If you don't have some sort of media—and radio is the best in our opinion—to counterbalance the predominant commercial media that is all in Spanish or in English, it makes language less of a modern, living thing. It becomes something that you might do with your grandparents."
As Kaimana Barcarse, the producer and lead DJ for KWXX (FM)'s Hawaiian-language radio show Alana I Kai Hikina, puts it, radio provides a way to ensure "the normalization of our language in our homelands. ... Broadcasting in our language allows us to share our paradigms, our worldviews, and the essence of our being."
The swift and sure loss of indigenous language in the U.S. was hardly an accident. From the latter part of the 19th century to the latter part of the 20th, the Bureau of Indian Affairs systematically sent generations of Native American kids into boarding schools that were more focused on punishment and assimilation than on education. In a piece for NPR in 2008, Charla Bear reported on the terrible conditions that persisted at these schools for a century—how kids were given Anglo names, bathed in kerosene, and forced to shave their heads.
In recent years, the government has taken steps to reverse some of the damage. In 1990, the Native American Languages Act was passed, recognizing the right of indigenous populations to speak their own language. And Taylor's lobbying helped lead to the creation in 2009 of the FCC's "Tribal Priority" for broadcasting and then, a year later, to the establishment of the FCC Office of Native Affairs and Policy, which promotes technology and communication access on tribal lands.