Our Mother Tongues Blog

Speaking in Tongues: Groundbreaking Film on Bilingualism and Education Now Available

October 30, 2014 - 1:13 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

San Francisco, CA. PatchWorks Films is pleased to announce the home video release of Speaking in Tongues, their award-winning documentary about dual-language education and its broader social impact (watch the trailer at: www.speakingintonguesfilm.info). Speaking in Tongues follows four diverse students who spend most of their day learning in a "foreign" language. As they grow in skill and proficiency, we see how knowing two languages changes them, their families, their communities, and their world.

Speaking in Tongues showcases a world where language barriers are being addressed in San Francisco public schools on a daily basis. Durell, an African-American boy from public housing, learns to read, write, and speak Mandarin. Jason, a Mexican-American boy, whose parents are not literate in any language, develops academic Spanish while mastering English. Kelly, a Chinese-American girl, regains her grandparents’ mother tongue—a language her parents lost through assimilation. Julian, a Caucasian teen, travels to Beijing to stay with a Mandarin speaking host family and test his fluency. Together, these students’ stories reveal the promise of a multilingual America. Each kid’s world opens up when they start learning two languages on the first day of kindergarten, and we see them develop both bicultural and bilingual fluency.
Speaking in Tongues is a must for anyone interested in America’s role in our interdependent world. Business leaders point to a “flattening” world, seeking workers with multilingual skills like those displayed by many from rising nations; the Department of Defense pours hundreds of millions of dollars into teaching; languages deemed “strategic” to national security (today Mandarin, Arabic, Russian. Tomorrow, Hindi? Portuguese? Malay?); and many educators tout the improved test scores of bilingual children—whether they speak English as a first language or not.

They Helped the Pilgrims—And Regretted It. How the Wampanoag Brought Their Language Back.

October 16, 2014 - 5:53 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

By Gretchen McCulloch — Watch the video below — Read the complete SLATE article here

We Still Live Here - Âs Nutayuneân is an inspiring documentary about the revival of the Wampanoag language in Southeastern Massachusetts. To quote the film description: "Their ancestors ensured the survival of the Pilgrims—and lived to regret it. Now they are bringing their language home again." 

The story centers around Jessie Little Doe Baird, a Wampanoag tribal member who's been working since 1994 on reviving the language, working with both community members and MIT linguists to figure out how to speak the language again based on written records. In addition to a number of adult learners, there are also currently the first generation of children speaking Wampanoag again in seven generations. 

"Injunuity" — A Wonderful Short Film

February 11, 2014 - 6:32 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

Injunuity is a wonderful short film from Vision Maker Media and ITVS about preserving American Indian languages. It is a mix of animation, music, and real thoughts from real people exploring our world from the Native American perspective. Enjoy!

A Whirlwind Trip Around Brazil with "We Still Live Here": A Luminous Visit with the Forest Tribe of Huni Kuin

December 15, 2012 - 8:56 PM | by Anne Makepeace

NOTE: This blog is part of Anne Makepeace’s American Film Showcase November 2012 Tour of Brazil with her documentary, We Still Live Here. Here are some wonderful links you may enjoy:

··· Check out many more amazing photographs on the Facebook Album ···

··· Read the entire blog of Anne’s tour of Brazil ···

··· Read more about the film We Still Live Here ···

On Monday, we set out on an expedition that would turn out to be the most moving and beautiful of the whole Brazilian experience.

After a four hour flight to the frontier town of Rio Branco, followed by six hours on rough road, we reached the town of Tarauacá to rest up for our visit to an indigenous tribe called the Huni Kuin, or True People, on the Pinuyá reserve. The trip was made much less arduous by the fact that I got to travel with Zezinho Yube, an accomplished filmmaker and a member of the Huni Kuin/Kaxinawa community we were setting out to visit.

On the long drive, we saw what had happened to most of the Huni Kuin’s territory — herds of cattle grazing on ranch land that settlers had burned out of the forest. Today there are approximately 10,000 Huni Kuin living on twelve reserves in the state of Acre, which borders on Bolivia and Peru. The Pinuyá reserve is the smallest of all.


We received a wonderful warm welcome from the tribal members. Alan and I were traveling with Marcos Afonso, Director  of the Library of the Forest in Rio Branco who had arranged the trip; two cultural attaches, John Matel and Angelina Smid, from the US Embassy in Brasilia; Amilton Matos, an anthropologist and linguist who works with the tribe; our enthusiastic translator Samuel Alves; and of course the wonderful Huni Kuin filmmaker, Zezinho Yube.

There were lots of speeches and oration, and then I was called upon to tell the group about We Still Live Here. It was odd to me not to be showing the film and letting it speak for itself, but I did my best and the tribal members were really moved by it’s wonderful story of cultural resilience. I asked the chief if the Huni Kuin had a message for the Wampanoag, and several members spoke for a long time about the importance of language and culture, of how impressed they were by the Wampanoags’ courage and persistence in bringing back the language. While the Huni Kuin still have many speakers, they know that they will have to fight for their language and culture to survive.


When the speeches were over, our US embassy host once again presented a gift of Sacred Legacy, a beautiful book of Edward Curtis photographs for which I had written the Afterword. Chief Assis Gomes and other Huni Kuin were interested in seeing Curtis’s images of their North American relatives.

I noticed that many of the Huni Kuin were recording the various speeches on their smart phones, a wonderful example of technology preserving traditional ways. I had permission to film and also recorded much of the day.

The medicine man gave us each a wonderful gift — eye drops that he extracted from a medicinal plant that felt lovely and clarifying.


The Huni Kuin have only had protected land since 1972, and they are trying hard to reforest the parts of their reserve that were burned down by ranchers. They asked Marcos, John Matel from the American Embassy, and me to each plant a tree. This was really the most moving moment of the day for me.


After lunch, the women gave a demonstration of their wonderful weaving techniques. After watching them, I looked closely at all the fabulously colorful designs they had woven into headbands, bracelets, necklaces, ankle bracelets, earrings, and clothing, all so intricate and beautiful.


The Huni Kuin went all out to welcome us with many long and eloquent speeches and gifts. They also received a huge Mercedes truck as a gift from an NGO to help them become more self-sustaining economically, a problem since much of their land base was burned out and taken over by ranchers. There was lots of ceremony around the receiving of the truck, and I think we were undeserving beneficiaries of their gratitude for this.


In the late afternoon, Angelina Smid and I joined in a fast-paced dance that was so much like the one that the Wampanoag do at the end of We Still Live Here — a line that snakes around and in on itself.


We were all exhausted at this point, which was around 6pm, the time we were scheduled to leave, but as it turned out the trucks had all disappeared — apparently the drivers had decided to give some of the Huni Kuin a ride somewhere. We waited and waited, nada. Finally Marcos reached one of them by cell phone, and it turned out they were stuck in the thick mire about half a mile away. We slogged through the mud, which caked our shoes about 2” thick, and got to the trucks around 7pm for our 6 hour drive back to Rio Branco.


It had been such an amazing and moving day that I didn’t mind the rough road or the long drive one bit.

A filmmaker cannot ask for more than this! Thanks so much to the American Film Showcase for choosing We Still Live Here, and to everyone at the American Embassy in Brazil for organizing such a magnificent, wide-ranging and enlightening journey.

For those of you who read this far, thank you for taking this wonderful trip with me!

Guest Blog by Cultural Survival Endangered Languages Program summer intern Laura Garbes

June 7, 2012 - 12:39 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

Great Resources for Learning about Native Language Revitalization


As a new CS intern, I’ve watched several films that gave me a helpful background on issues of Indigenous rights and language revitalization efforts both in the US and abroad. Though the films differ in content—from community radio efforts in Guatemala to U.S. tribal efforts in immersion schooling for children—the basic feelings of urgency to revitalize languages in jeopardy transcend individual situations. These documentaries are great starting points for any individuals curious about the state of Native languages around the globe today. The resources also outline what exactly language revitalization is and why it is so important for Natives and non-natives alike. I’ve provided a list below of these resources, suitable for anyone looking to expand their knowledge on native languages and their importance in our world today.


1.  WHY SAVE A LANGUAGE? Directed by Sally Thompson and produced by University of Montana’s Regional Learning Project


This documentary, about a half hour in length, provides an overview of language revitalization, incorporating citizens from several tribes who each give their own perspective on why language revitalization is crucial for their respective tribes and in general. Despite the disparate situations facing each tribe, there are several common sentiments shared inter-tribally. The groups encountered in these videos all agree that languages shape and reflect cultural identity; thus, to know a language is, in a way, to have ownership of an experience, of a different reality. It is a blueprint for thinking that influences and shapes how we see and interact with the world around us.


What’s more, the documentary calls to mind and challenges views of those that feel as though English is the language of patriotism, and that it asserts one’s identity as an American. A tribal member made the point that this “speak English or leave” sentiment common in the narrative of US history is especially invalid in the case of Native Americans and their tribal languages, begging the question, to where would these tribes leave, considering the Americas is the origin point of their languages? In reality, when compared to tribal languages, English is actually the foreign language later introduced to the region. When taking this perspective, we can see that tribal languages, many of which are endangered, deserve special reverence as original languages of the Americas.


One tribal member interviewed in the documentary stressed the invaluable wisdom contained within each language. He laments the loss of linguistic diversity with an apt comparison to a burning library, remarking, “Intelligent people don’t burn down libraries.” Yet, what we are doing in allowing languages to die out is essentially watching repositories of knowledge quickly disappear from our generation’s grasp. These shared sentiments are consistent throughout the following region-specific films.


2.  WE STILL LIVE HERE: Âs Nutayuneân from Makepeace Productions, produced with the assistance of Cultural Survival’s Endangered Languages Program


Director Anne Makepeace’s documentary explores the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project in particular. The Wampanoag case is special because over a century had gone by without any speakers of the Wampanoag language before any language revitalization efforts took place. Yet, the WLRP owes much success to a singular determination among the Wampanoag Nation’s citizens in Massachusetts. Tribal members reflecting on the project’s founding recall that, while they were still in the deliberation stages, there were no people on the committee saying “no, don't bother.” All were interested, making possible all the successful efforts in Mashpee, MA, like the daily master-apprentice program, weekly community-based classes, summer youth camps, and an annual three-day language immersion camp for families.


Jessie Littledoe, who spearheaded the Wampanoag language revitalization efforts, explains specifically how their tribal language is a repository of the wisdom of their elders. For instance, the structure of the language divides animate and inanimate nouns. Within this system, the moon was labeled animate and the sun inanimate; thus, it can be inferred that the Wampanoag peoples, upon development of their language, had a high grasp of astronomical principles. In addition, the unique point of view that speaking a particular language provides is beautifully illustrated in the Wampanoag expression of losing their land rights. The literal translation of a person losing land rights is “I fall down,” as in, to fall off your feet and have no ground under you. This is an idiomatic expression that correlates with the fact that, seeing as there were no horses or carriages in the pre-Columbian era, their feet never left the ground, in the literal sense. The containment of this subtle information within a single phrase is something that would be lost in translation without the language itself existing in spoken form today. Thus, the revival of the language was a revival of the culture as well as its nuances.


3.  A short film on the Sauk language revitalization project, Kîmâchipena: Let’s Come Together from the Sauk Language Department and filmmaker Jenni Monet


Another specific language project documentary is Kîmâchipena: Let’s Come Together, which outlines the language revitalization efforts of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma to revive Sauk. Their efforts to pilot a preschool immersion classroom have been successful because of the collective will of the Sauk people, who all wish to talk Sauk because the language that belongs to their people. Like the other revitalization projects of its kind, their community-based language work has brought with it an assertion of identity, to fight against the assimilation that dissolves their own cultural norms.


The video introduces Sauk members of all ages, each holding up a sign about their connection to Sauk. There were some that, in their words, asserted, “I talk Sauk.” But for the most part, the members made declarations of a desire to learn “I want to talk Sauk,” “English is not my language,” or “I want to speak my language.” The solidarity among age groups and between different fluency levels of Sauk is a manifestation of the will needed to fuel an undertaking as ambitious as this community’s project. It speaks to the truth that strong community support and participation is necessary in carrying out any project as extensive as preserving or revitalizing an entire language. The Sauk language film is powerful because the English language only appears as subtitles or on signs, but is never spoken. Watch the film at TalkSauk.com


4.  To learn about the Euchee (Yuchi) Language Project watch the short film sôKAnAnô: We Are Still Here online at yuchilanguage.org


The Euchee/ Yuchi Language Project outlined in sôKAnAnô: We Are Still Here is unique in that the language is an isolate and has no linguistic relatives, making it more difficult to recover lost words as has been done in the case of the Wampanoag language. The fact that there is just one Native male speaker and a handful of other Yuchi speakers left makes the call to revive the language all the more time-sensitive. It is particularly striking to listen to the last first-language male speaker of Yuchi express his earnest desire to pass on his language. His commentary provides a very concrete example of the imminent extinction of a language if no action is taken.


5.  Democratizando la Palabra: la Radio Comunitaria en Guatemala (Voices of Democracy: Community Radio in Guatemala)


The final video I watched during orientation was created by Cultural Survival, Democratizando la Palabra: la Radio Comunitaria en Guatemala (Voices of Democracy: Community Radio in Guatemala). The video explains the Guatemalan Community Radio Project, one of CS’s main programs. It highlights the importance of community radio in Guatemala in fostering linguistic diversity, because local radio stations are the only ones that broadcast in Indigenous languages, which are community-specific. The video then points out all efforts by the Guatemalan government to stifle this form of free speech. The video lends an international perspective on the rights of linguistic minorities, and helps demonstrate that the struggles are universal and not just limited to a single country or region. To learn more about the project visit the CS Community Radio Project online.


There is much to be learned from each and every Native language. With the danger of their extinction, we are also in danger of losing the capability to draw from these fountains of wisdom. By providing the voices of tribal members and leaders, these five videos give informed perspectives from those who have experienced the trials, tribulations, and successes of revitalization efforts firsthand. It is by no means an exhaustive list of resources on Native language revitalization, but I hope this list of films will give you some background as well as whet your curiosity on the topic, as it did mine.

One Year Later: The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP)

December 1, 2011 - 8:43 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

While filming for WE STILL LIVE HERE: Âs Nutayuneân wrapped in summer 2010, editing, sound, and final touches to the finished documentary continued throughout the fall in preparation for the film’s public debut on the 2011 film festival circuit in January. The October 2011 launch of Our Mother Tongues as the film’s companion website, situated WLRP within the national context of the Native American language revitalization movement, and gave viewers of the national Independent Lens broadcast on PBS a window into a dozen diverse tribal communities from coast to coast—each with its own unique approach to implementing training programs and opportunities to produce fluent speakers, thus effectively extending the life of their local endangered mother tongue.


The tribal language programs featured on Our Mother Tongues are only a handful of the many hundreds growing and thriving among the 565 federally recognized American Indian tribes—and hundreds of state and locally recognized Indigenous communities—living throughout the United States and its territories. Our Mother Tongues will of course aim to add more programs to the site in the coming year, especially drawing from those already included in Cultural Survival’s Endangered Languages Program network of contacts among more than 300 Indigenous language programs.


One thing is certain: WLRP’s language work is proving to be a source of inspiration to many Indigenous communities, including those who must work to reclaim language through documentation, as well as for those tribes fortunate to still have living speakers. After the film’s screenings at festivals, language conferences, tribal colleges, community libraries, and in university classrooms, Q&A and discussion with audience members inevitably turns back to the recent progress made by Wampanoag language teachers and learners.


Read more about the latest and greatest from this tenacious community-based language project that is accomplishing what linguists like Noam Chomsky once considered “impossible!” In the latest issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly (CSQ), Endangered Languages Program Manager Jennifer Weston (Hunkpapa Lakota) and CSQ editor Barbara Sorenson profile WLRP’s master apprentice program in the magazine’s regular feature, “Women the World Must Hear: Awakening A Sleeping Language on Cape Cod.” The article explores language immersion methodologies like master apprentice programs that are creating successful language training environments for Indigenous communities, and also links to the Independent Television Service (ITVS) discussion guide for WE STILL LIVE HERE: Âs Nutayuneân, produced in collaboration with Cultural Survival’s Endangered Languages Program. Read the December 2011 CSQ article here.


October 28, 2011 - 5:32 AM | by Our Mother Tongues

Indigenous Peoples’ diverse languages have developed over many thousands of years in close relationship to their ancestral tribal homelands. These many hundreds of languages—scholars estimate as many as 300-500 Indigenous languages were once spoken in North America—carry detailed knowledge and observations of the natural world, including place names often displaced by much more recent English-language monikers such as Mato Tipila (“Bear Lodge,” in Lakota), renamed “Devil’s Tower” by settlers and the National Park Service. Those first settlers obviously knew the location to be a sacred and powerful ceremonial site to dozens of tribes—and myriad locations from the east to west coast are branded “devils'” places in reference to the Native peoples who once worshipped there enjoying full religious freedom.

While 139 Indigenous languages are miraculously still spoken today in the U.S.—according to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger—more than 70 are spoken only by the oldest generations of tribal citizens. Some linguists estimate scarcely two dozen Native languages will still be spoken by mid-century; however, a dedicated Native American languages movement has worked for decades to document, publish in, and promote Native language materials and usage among younger generations. This work follows centuries of overt language discrimination and suppression by settlers and religious denominations who actively worked to exterminate Indian languages and cultures beginning in New England the early 1630s with the first grammar schools and “praying towns” providing refuge and “education” to Indian families and students.  

Later, federally funded Indian boarding schools were opened by the U.S. War Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (the Bureau was later moved to the Department of Interior) with an explicit goal to “kill the Indian, save the man,” and children from hundreds of tribes were removed from their communities for years at a time to be trained largely as an agricultural, domestic, and industrial labor force.  Even into the 1970s and 80s, Native children were often harshly punished or ridiculed for speaking their mother tongues, and as a result, successive generations of tribal peoples did not teach their children their heritage languages in order to shield them from the discrimination and corporal punishment they experienced.  Today’s Native language teachers and students still face unfair certification and testing practices mandated by more than a decade of prohibitive No Child Left Behind Act regulations, which have continued to undermine Native language classrooms and schools.

Now, with a sense of great urgency, those tribal communities with only a handful of speakers—including the Euchee, Wampanoag, and Sauk—work every day to train new generations of speakers via intensive language education activities including master-apprentice programs, language immersion classrooms, and intergenerational home-based “language nests” and daycare programs like those pioneered by the Maori and Native Hawaiian language communities.  Roughly a dozen speakers of the Wampanoag language—reclaimed from written records including the first bible published in the western hemisphere, and by careful comparison with related languages in the Algonquian “family”—have emerged  after more than fifteen years of intensive community-based efforts to return the language to their nation. 

Linguists group similar and sometimes mutually intelligible languages that share historic characteristics into “families,” but these designations are imprecise simply because so little is still known about these ancient languages.  And while a dozen major language families encompass scores of tribal tongues, more than twenty languages are simply known as “isolates,” unrelated to any others in the Americas.  There is much to be learned and rediscovered by tribal citizens and rising generations now finally free to speak and actively use mother tongues in public, even while public and tribal schools are still often hobbled by uncooperative state and federal regulations.  All Indigenous languages—and Indigenous Peoples’ rights to speak, transmit, and educate their children in these languages—are now protected by an international human rights framework adopted less than one year ago by the United States:  the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  For Native Americans, this is a giant leap forward to protect ancient tongues too long labeled as “backward” impediments to our “progress.”

This website was produced by Makepeace Productions in partnership with Cultural Survival and Interactive Knowledge
with funding from the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
©2011 Makepeace LLC