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.
Still, the effects of centuries of forced assimilation run deep. Richard Alun Davis, station manager for Arizona Hopi station KUYI 88.1 FM, says that the disappearing vocabulary creates a "complex tapestry of shame" in the approximately 9,000-person population his station reaches.
"Even if they can speak, they usually do not do it outside of the home for fear of being corrected," he says. Because the Hopi religious tradition is firmly rooted in the language, "It's not only a moment of discomfort with the literacy. It's also showing that you're unable to participate in all the culture."
In 1998, Mesa Media Inc. conducted a survey of 200 Hopi people and found that while people ages 60 and up were 100 percent fluent in Hopi, that percentage diminished steadily as you got younger: 84 percent ages 40-59, 50 percent ages 20-39 and 5 percent in children age 2-19. The survey, which provides the most recent data of its kind on this community, concluded that unless children began to learn Hopi right away, the language would die out completely in a few generations.