Of 300 languages indigenous to what is now the USA, 175 are still spoken (Krauss 1998). The language with the most speakers – 178,000 in the 2000 Census – is Navajo but, as Table 3.1 shows, most Native American languages have many fewer speakers. More than a third have just a handful of elderly speakers. For example, Eyak, a language once spoken by people indigenous to what is now southern Alaska, lost its last speaker, Marie Smith Jones, in 2008. All Native American languages are endangered, as Native children are increasingly socialized in English. The causes of this are complex – a topic we will discuss later in this chapter. The consequences are grave, for, unlike speakers of languages spoken elsewhere in the world, Indigenous communities have no external pool of speakers from which to replenish their numbers. “The loss of the indigenous language is terminal: language death” (Warner 1999: 72). Given this situation, language revitalization is a significant goal in Native American communities throughout the USA.
Understanding Native American language issues requires understanding the unique legal and political status of Native peoples in the USA. The term “Native American” encompasses diverse American Indian tribes, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians who share a status as first peoples, with the right to exercise tribal sovereignty, which is the “right of a people to government, self-determination, and self-education,” including the right to linguistic and cultural expression according to local languages and norms (Lomawaima and McCarty 2006: 10).