Ernest Siva preferred to listen. He was young then. He didn’t understand yet. Growing up on the Morongo Indian Reservation in Southern California, he spoke almost exclusively English. But every evening after dinner, his grandfather, Pete Ramon, would sit at the table and speak in Serrano — the Native language of the Serrano people, who have lived in California for some 2,500 years.
“It was just a matter of practice, a matter of fact. He just expected that to happen. That’s how we kept the Serrano language going,” Siva says. “But it was just the time that things were changing.”
By that, he means his native tongue seemed to be losing its utility. His great-grandfather used to warn him to keep the language flame burning, because without it, he and the rest of his generational cohort would lose a vital link to understanding who they are and where they’ve been. “But you have to learn and change,” he added. “Learn the new way to be successful in this world, because everything is changing.”
Globalization, infrastructure and (later) the internet — not to mention centuries of culture-squashing colonialism — had made English ubiquitous. Many of Siva’s elders still spoke Serrano, but the youth were losing interest. It just didn’t seem like they needed it, and for the early part of his life, count Siva among them. “I always understood,” he says. “I just didn’t try to speak.”
He’d sometimes fall asleep still listening to his grandfather. Oftentimes he didn’t know exactly what was being said, whether it was a parable or a story. “But for sure,” he says, “it was history.” Sometimes his grandfather would sing “bird songs,” which contained the origin stories of their people. Again, he didn’t yet understand. But over time, he learned to heed his great-grandfather’s advice; to adapt and preserve at once. “That’s what we were following more or less to the present,” he says. “Our family has done that.” But he recognizes that many others — mostly for reasons outside their control — have not. “We’re the last of the Mohicans,” he says with a coarse chuckle, “so to speak.”
“Our languages connect us to our ancestors and to our homelands and help us share Indigenous knowledge from generation to generation.” —U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland
Many across western North America are scrambling to preserve Native languages before they disappear forever. And not just in a way where they rest on old recordings in museums, but in a way where people actually speak them casually; in a way where they can evolve and grow. “The loss of traditional language,” says Jon Reyhner, a professor of education at Northern Arizona University who has written extensively on native language revitalization, “is a good proxy for cultural loss.” And many Native Americans are tired of suffering such losses.
“Our languages connect us to our ancestors and to our homelands and help us share Indigenous knowledge from generation to generation,” says Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary. “But because of the federal government’s forced assimilation policies that were meant to strip us of our culture, many of our languages are at risk of being lost or have been lost forever. It is a sad reality for many Indigenous people. Many of us have lost that connection. Many of us have lost our language.”
That fact has been documented by publications from National Geographic to The New Republic. It also spawned a capstone project by Jordan Layton, a BYU photography student who graduated in 2017. After reading about how one language disappears every 14 days, he teamed up with BYU professor and head of photography Paul Adams to capture some of the last speakers of certain languages before they go extinct. The project uses 20-by-24-inch tintype metal plates coated with collodion and liquid silver — a process from the 1800s that produces archaic-looking, yet enduring portraits. “Tintypes are one of the most permanent and archival kind of prints,” Layton told Y Magazine in 2020. “That, in juxtaposition with how quickly these languages and cultures are dying out, just felt really symbolic and important.”
The project, titled “Vanishing Voices,” has been featured in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian and accompanies this text. So far, Layton and Adams have photographed 18 people across North America. The work remains ongoing, because the languages continue to fade. Yet some — like Siva — still hold onto hope that the dialect of their people won’t be consigned to old-timey photographs. That rejuvenation is possible. But, like “Vanishing Voices” poignantly illustrates, time is running out.
Siva’s journey to reclaiming his mother tongue didn’t have a single starting point, but it was heavily influenced by his passion for music. At an event in the late 1950s, folk legend Pete Seeger once asked him if he “knew any Indian songs.” Siva told the truth: He did not. “That happened more than once,” he says. “And I realized that if I was going to be a music teacher, I should really be sharing our culture at some point.”
So he did. He learned some bird songs, and he taught them for over a decade at UCLA in his American Indian music class. While there, he was once chosen as a bass soloist in a faculty production of Handel’s “Messiah.” His mother happened to be in town, so she came to watch him perform. After the show, he asked her what she thought. “Oh, it was nice,” she said. “But don’t forget your own songs.”
“So that was kind of another turning point,” he says.
Indeed, to undo centuries of stifling, he realized he could no longer listen alone.
Native American stories and songs are about passing down wisdom. In very oversimplified terms, they teach tribal members lessons about how to live a good life. Or, at least, they taught such things. Centuries of colonialism resulted in policies designed to “civilize the savage” through boarding schools beginning in the mid-19th century, and other forms of forced acculturation. “Teachers were told that there was nothing of value in Indian cultures,” says Reyhner, “and their role was to assimilate American Indian students into American culture. Learn English, often become Christian, and forget all that savagery.”
The legacy of these programs might feel like a bygone relic of a more cruel time, but they weren’t officially reversed until the 1972 Indian Education Act allowed educational instruction in Native languages.
The legacy of these programs might feel like a bygone relic of a more cruel time, but they weren’t officially reversed until 1972’s Indian Education Act allowed educational instruction in Native languages. The Native American Languages Act of 1990 additionally declared that, from then on, “it is U.S. policy to … promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages.” This was just over 30 years ago; the scars are fresher than many realize. “Like many Native people in our country, I do not speak Keres, my Indigenous language,” says Haaland, who is an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. “My mother was beaten in school by educators when she spoke Keres and because of that trauma, she could not bear to teach me or my siblings.”
Historical atrocities aren’t the only reasons for Native language declines, though the trail often leads back to them. Reyhner also cites the influence of popular culture. Native Americans consume the same music and movies and TV shows as any other Americans, and naturally, what’s most popular is almost always in English. That is, some languages have succumbed to noncoerced assimilation over time. Haaland, for one, did not want that to happen to her kids. Luckily, with much of the stigma around Native languages now (legally) removed, she says her mother is finally comfortable enough to teach Haaland’s children. “We are lucky,” she says. “Many communities have lost their elders and cannot pass on the language.”
The Indigenous Language Institute told The New York Times in 2010 that while some 300 Native languages were once spoken in the United States, only 175 remained. That number has shrunk since then, and the overwhelming majority of the ones still around are critically endangered. The Endangered Languages Project provides a color-coded map of endangered languages across the world, and in the U.S., the majority are either “severely endangered” or “dormant.”
One outlier is Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language, which is the only one in the U.S. listed as “at risk” rather than “endangered.” That’s the language Reyhner is most familiar with, having taught Navajo children math when he first graduated from college, and he warns that even those seemingly encouraging numbers are deceiving. When he started teaching around 1970, he estimates that 95 percent of his students were fluent in Diné Bizaad. But today, as paved roads and communications infrastructure have largely broken communities out of isolation, only the elders are still speaking it regularly. If he visited his old school today, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 5 percent (speaking it),” he says.
That is, at least for now.
Siva, now 85, runs a nonprofit named for his aunt: The Dorothy Ramon Learning Center. It started in the early 2000s with his wife and neighbor reading “Nonprofit Kit for Dummies.” Their goal was to further his aunt’s legacy; for over a decade, she’d worked with a linguist to publish a nearly 900-page bilingual book of her stories and memories called “Wayta’ Yawa’ (Always Believe).” The nonprofit works to promote workshops, exhibitions and exchanges about Southern California’s Native American culture — including language classes. But even in his retirement years, Siva’s commitment has grown beyond the nonprofit.
He meets with linguists from the San Manuel Reservation every Thursday; they work with a program called the Serrano Language Revitalization Project, whose goal is “promote and sustain San Manuel’s unique linguistic heritage.” He also, until the pandemic interfered, regularly visited the K-8 school on the Morongo reservation to share stories about Coyote and Hummingbird and other characters of Native folklore. He might teach brief lessons in Serrano or Cahuilla, which he knows from his father’s side of the family. And, of course, he’d sing.
Siva heeded his mother’s advice about learning the songs of his people — at least as much as he could. Songs in their culture had different purposes tied to everyday life. Hunting songs for nights before a hunt, for example, or basket-making songs. Funeral songs. Siva recalls attending one such funeral as a boy, where elders chanted in the background of a fire. When those elders died, they took thousands of years worth of wisdom to the grave. Regrettably, many of the oral traditions of the Maara’yam, as the Serrano called themselves before the Spanish arrived, have been lost to history. “It was like written books. They were the books of our people,” Siva says. “They were that important. So once the books are burned, you’re going to lose your songs, your knowledge. Because ours was in memories.”
He estimates that “just a handful” of Serrano speakers remain, though he’s hopeful that perhaps it’s being passed down, at least to a few people, outside of institutional knowledge. He doesn’t even consider himself a fluent speaker because it isn’t his first language. “I think every day about the language and, of course, use it, but there’s really no one to talk to, and that’s what it takes,” he says. “We give it a good college try every once in a while. But we should do more. Because it could be done.”
“My mother was beaten in school by educators when she spoke Keres and because of that trauma, she could not bear to teach me or my siblings.” —U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland
Siva is sure of this: That with enough interest and effort, Native languages still have a chance to grow in the 21st century. Many have already taken steps down that road. First lady Jill Biden recently visited a Cherokee language immersion school in Oklahoma — one of several across the country. The Navajo Nation Museum in Arizona has dubbed three films — “Star Wars,” “Finding Nemo” and, most recently, the Clint Eastwood classic “A Fistful of Dollars” — in Diné Bizaad. “That’s one way to show the youth that our language is versatile and our language can be adapted in any setting,” Jennifer Wheeler, a professor who helped translate the most recent film, told the Navajo Times. “We hope that it gives them hope and shows them that it is possible to learn our language.” And the United Nations General Assembly declared this year the beginning of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, scheduled to conclude in 2032.
The challenges such initiatives face are fierce. Generations of Native Americans have been indoctrinated to believe that their traditional languages are unnecessary at best. But that attitude has evolved, even in the U.S. federal government. Haaland praised the Biden administration’s commitment to reversing the historical trend, including a multiagency initiative announced last November between the departments of the Interior, Education, and Health and Human Services. “These investments are a testament to our administration’s commitment to support Indigenous communities and the respect we have for Indigenous knowledge,” Haaland said.
Funding and government interest are undoubtedly important, Reyhner adds, but “political support comes and goes for this.” And with or without it, there’s only one statistic that matters moving forward. “Adding new, young speakers to Indigenous language communities is the ultimate — and only — critical measure of success of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages,” Richard Grounds, executive director of the Yuchi Language Project, wrote in the December 2021 issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly.
That entire issue was dedicated to “securing the future of our languages,” with Adriana Hernández Chos laying out three hopeful strategies: full immersion programs, the master-apprentice model, and the deployment of “multilingual media and digital strategies” to meet prospective speakers where they are, on TVs and smartphones. “There’s no panacea,” Reyhner adds. “There’s no one thing you can do.” But, as Chos, Siva and others have illustrated, there are some things that can be done, both big and small, to preserve Native languages — and everything that comes with them. “Languages go to the heart of a tribe’s unique cultural identities, traditions, spiritual beliefs and self-governance,” Haaland says. “Investing in these preservation programs can help sustain Indigenous knowledge that can only be transmitted through tribal languages.”
Siva hopes above all that future generations won’t make the same mistake he did, waiting until later in life to take the languages of his heritage more seriously. Doing so can result in a difficult burden, though one worth bearing — and one that no one else can bear. “We realized that if we didn’t carry it on,” he says, “it was on our shoulders.”