An unfortunate side effect of society’s relentless push for progress is the gradual erosion of tradition. While some traditions were not necessarily beneficial to United States society at large (such as the segregationist tradition of the Deep South), others served to enhance the depth of our culture. This is especially true of Native American traditions, which have played a large part in the development of the United States and the country’s unique mix of cultures.
Sadly, Native American traditions are quickly dying out. For example, fewer people of Native American descent are learning tribal languages, and those who do rarely use Native American languages outside of the classroom.
A number of efforts to preserve Native American cultures, beliefs and languages are under way, so that tribal knowledge can be passed down to future generations. Following are some of those initiatives:
Why does language retention matter so much? The answer is complicated, but one reason is that language is so closely linked to the very essence of a given culture. When a language dies out, is a signal that the culture as a whole has transformed into something new.
When talented teachers get students excited about Native American languages, they increase the chance of these languages being spoken outside of classrooms. In East Peoria, Ill., the Native American Fellowship Dayspring Church has made great strides towards preserving the Cherokee language with its engaging language courses. The teacher learned the language from his great uncle and now hopes to impart that knowledge to his students.
Research has shown that language immersion programs or pairing older native language speakers with young people are both effective ways to pass-on rare languages to new generations.
Tribal preservation program
The National Park Service is not just dedicated to preserving the natural world; it also seeks to preserve the diverse and distinctive cultures of Native American people. In 1990, the NPS was asked to study and report on Native American culture and tradition. The result of this project was a greater understanding of life in the Native American community, which later translated into greater funding for tribal preservation. This money is distributed to tribes through the Tribal Preservation Program, where it is then used for cultural preservation efforts, restoration of historic sites and other programs.
In fiscal year 2012, the Hoi Mai Ka Lei I Mamo tribe of Kona, Hawaii, received a tribal preservation grant that will be used to record the words and voices of tribal elders, describing traditional opelu fishing practices. And in Oklahoma, the Chickasaw Cultural Center is a perfect example of what can arise from the funding provided by the Tribal Preservation Program. With its grant funding, the Chickasaw tribe built a cultural center that has taught visitors from all over the world about what makes the Chickasaw Nation unique and valuable. More importantly, the center has helped younger generations reconnect with their roots.
So long as funding exists for cultural preservation efforts, Native American tribes can hold onto the traditions of their ancestors – and pass them on to future generations as well.