The Native Americans used to have many languages prior to the arrival of the Europeans. In fact, it’s difficult for some of us to fathom exactly how many there used to be and how many are left in comparison today.
In fact, it’s estimated there used to be about 300 native languages and today, these numbers are around half of this with even fewer speakers of the languages.
Because of such large numbers, it can be problematic to list exactly what all of these variations of native languages were, but we can still examine some of the most known as well as the history of the languages.
Today’s guide will explore what some Native American languages were and seek to answer why so few exist today with the numbers of speakers of these languages decreasing.
What Language Did Native Americans Speak?
It’s important that we start off by exploring how we got to a situation with so few native languages left circulating in North America.
The simplest answer is due to European colonization. When the Europeans settled, they introduced many changes to the lands, some of which benefited Native Americans, but much more was detrimental.
Europeans brought with them, either consciously or unconsciously, new diseases and bacteria that would have been completely alien and brand new to Native Americans. As a result, the Native Americans struggled with their immune system to combat the effects.
There are theories that some European settlers provided Native Americans with clothing and coverings that were infected with disease and aimed to act as “disease warfare” to reduce the numbers of Native Americans.
In fact, it’s estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of all Native American deaths were as a result of foreign illnesses such as smallpox and measles. Europeans had a distinct advantage due to their immunology, but also with much more advanced technology and weaponry.
Throughout the coming history, the Europeans and Native Americans would become involved in various conflicts and battles which further dwindled the numbers of Native Americans. In the 19th century, orders to cull the buffalo population were given – the primary source for Native American food and clothing.
This added to already problematic food shortages – forcing some Natives to either die of starvation, integrate with American policies or move north to Canada. All choices resulted in much fewer numbers of Native American people and therefore, even fewer native languages and speakers.
If the Native Americans opted to integrate and agree to American treaties, they would be forced to remain on Reservations and attend classes that forced English as a language, along with other conformities like clothing, religion and diet.
The Americans would try to justify their actions by claiming they were helping the Native Americans, reversing the “savage” out of them and “civilizing” them. In reality, their policies would see a massive reduction in Native American numbers and lead to a lack of opposition in development plans.
These plans included massive railway development to connect the lands, an early vision of a “United States”. Upon development, many other dwindling Native American tribe numbers were being forced out of their lands or faced consequences.
What Language Did Native Americans Speak in Modern History?
From the era of the Civil Rights movement and more contemporary times, some atrocities of the Europeans and Americans saw some reversals.
Prior to this, it took until the early 1920s for Native Americans to be classified as “citizens” but still could not vote in their lands until the 1960s.
The ability to receive education in native languages was passed in 1972 with the Indian Education Act. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the protection of Native American’s languages was enforced with the Native American Languages Act.
This, in essence, gave Native Americans the right to their language back. They could now use and promote their native language in any state in the United States.
However, perhaps unsurprisingly – Native Americans felt distrust from American politics, and generally abstained from it for many years.
But, in 2018 – two Native Americans were voted into the House of Representatives, which finally allowed Native American voices to be represented in American politics.
What’s Happening With Native Languages Today?
Out of around 350 languages that are used in the United States, Native American languages still account for about 150 of them. The most spoken Native American language today is the Navajo language.
It’s estimated that around 150-175,000 people can speak and use Navajo language, but to put that in perspective, the second most spoken Native American language is Yupik, native to Alaska, and less than 20,000 people are said to speak it.
The truth is that most modern Native Americans can only speak English and the numbers of people who can speak any Native American language is continuing to reduce, as fluent speakers are dying out.
However, there are groups in the United States and around other parts of the world that aim to preserve many different native languages, including Native American languages.
The problem for these groups is preserving some of the languages that are all but lost. Some documented versions of Native American languages were lost prior to the midway point of the 19th century, and more were lost during the American Civil War.
Some of the languages that we know were used by Native Americans included:
There are of course, many more to this. Around ⅔ of all languages spoken prior to the 1900s have either ceased to exist or were close to dying out. Nowadays, the numbers lost are even higher than this.
There were so many Native American languages, and it would be near impossible to say exactly all the original languages that so many tribes and Natives used.
However, what we do know is the numbers have dramatically decreased, and some groups exist today to try to preserve what they can.