Language Education Policy Studies
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Native American (or Amerindian) Population 

in the U.S.

The Native American (Indigenous, or Amerindian) population in the U.S. is now less than 2 million, although part of the demographic shift is linked to immigrants where the population is growing faster than the dominant white population. Estimates vary, but at the time of European contact there were over 500 linguistically distinct groups in the current U.S. Out of the 191 languages that survive, only 20 have child speakers, and only 8 are even relatively large. While the languages struggle to survive, and many communities are engaged in reclamation and revitalization efforts – Native American students are the lowest achieving in school. Many of these students are put in English Language Learner classes, even though they don’t know their mother tongue. Most state curriculum do not teach culture or treaty rights either.


The case of Native American languages is unique for two reasons. First, the languages were purposefully and explicitly targeted for elimination (language death) and extinction in the late 19th century through boarding school education. From Indigenous cultures where education and language were holistic (See Indigenous languages) and orally transmitted, young children were forcefully taken from their families to schools far from the reservations, when the day schools near the reservations proved ineffective and schooling in the U.S. became compulsory. There, the educational system made the languages and traditions inferior, dangerous and hated. Second, in the late 20th century, when pan-tribal activism succeeded in struggles for educational sovereignty that included language reclamation and the Native American Languages Act (1990/92) and Esther Martinez Act (2006) were passed, the Acts linked educational achievement to mother tongue and heritage language. In the last 10 years however, No Child Left Behind has made these achievements more difficult, if not impossible, to enact. The Obama administration has also reaffirmed these principles in his Principles for Stronger Tribal Communities. However, when schools fail to meet test score requirements, more English instruction is mandated. This along with funding issues make the Acts often symbolic.


Today while most would argue that language is critical to their identity and rights, few tribes have the capacity to engage in reclamation. This is due to problems of identity and self-esteem, poverty, crime, drugs, and educational failure; after over a century of being drawn into the structural assimilation and social fabric of U.S. society with its racism, discrimination, inequalities, and the intergenerational trauma of centuries of oppression. Yet, the 566 federally recognized and continuing communities are reclaiming tribal and educational sovereignty and increasingly focusing on language. Through community effort, developing effective pedagogy- for example immersion schools, language nests, or master-apprentice models- that all involve family, community, and school planning- with a strong focus on the youth who are the next generations of speakers language reclamation is thus a strengthening bond, a means of continuance, and a right. Furthermore, reclaiming language is part of many prophecies regarding completing the circle, or Lighting the 7th Fire, and regaining sovereignty over their lives and land.


WEB SITES Maps and history.

U.S. based “ELF”- focus on documentation.

Services dedicated to creating new speakers before it is too late. (United States)


Ojibwe immersion school in Wisconsin.

Navajo. Talks of identity and a school.

Dakota (South Dakota). Talks of importance and identity, culture.

Revitalization in California.

Trailer for “Our Spirits Don’t Speak English”.


Adams, D. W. (1995). Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience 1875-1928. Lawrence, KS: Universitiy Press of Kansas


Bear Nicholas, A. (2009). Reversing Language Shift through a Native Language Immersion Program... In T. Skutnabb-Kangas (Ed.), Social Justice throught Multilingual Education.


Campbell, L. (1997). American Indian languages: the historical linguistics of Native America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Congress, U. S. (1990, October 30). Public Law 101-477- Title I- Native American Languages Act.


Congress, U. S. (n.d.). Public Law 109-394: Esther Martinez Native American Languages and Preservation Act of 2006.


Greszcyk, R. (2010). Ojibwe Language Warriors, Leaders in the Ojibwe Language Revitalization Movement. MN: University of Minnesota.


Hornberger, N. (1996). Indigenous Literacies in the Americas: Language Planning from the Bottom Up. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.


Hornberger, N. (1998). Language policy, language education, language rights: Indigenous, immigrant, and international perspectives. Language in Society (27), 439-458.

(“What does it mean to lose a language?”)


McCarty, T. (2013). Language Planning and Policy in Native America: History, Theory, Praxis. Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters.


McCarty, T. (2009). Empowering Indigenous Languages: What can be learned from Native American experiences? In T. Skutnabb-Kangas, R. Phillipson, A. K. Mohanty, & M. Panda (Eds.), Social Justice through Multilingual Education (pp. 125-139). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.


McCarty, T. (2009). Indigenous Youth as Language Policy Makers. Journal of Language, Identity & Education , 8 (5).


McCarty, T. L. (2008). American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Education in the Era of Standardization and NCLB- An Introduction. Journal of American Indian Education , 47 (1), 1-8.


Obama, B. (2008). Barack Obama’s Principles for Stronger Tribal Communities. Online at, accessed 11 August 2013.


Pease-Pretty on Top, J. Native American Language Immersion: Innovative Native Education for Children and Families. American Indian College Fund.


Romero-Little, M. E., & McCarty, T. L. (2007). Language Policies in Practice: Preliminary Findings from a Large-Scale National Study of Native American Language Shift. TESOL Quarterly , 607-618.


Spolsky, Bernard. (2002). Prospects for the survival of the Navajo language: a reconsideration. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 33(2), 1-24.


Warhol, L. (2011). Native American language education as policy-in-practice: an interpretative policy analysis of the Native American Languages Act of 1990/1992. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism , 14 (3), 279-299.


Wiley, T. G. (2002). Accessing Language Rights in Education: A Brief History of the U.S. Context. In J. W. Tollefson (Ed.), Language Policies in Education (pp. 39-64). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


This web page has a copyright. It may be referred to and quoted, or reproduced and distributed for educational purposes according to fair use legislation only if the following citation is included in the document:

This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Harrison, K. M. (2013). U.S. Native Americans. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

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