EUGENE, Ore. – Nov. 9, 2023 - The University of Oregon’s Northwest Indian Language Institute will create a resource center for the revitalization of Indigenous languages, thanks to more than $1.7 million in funding from the US Department of Education.
Since 1997, the Northwest Indian Language Institute, or NILI, has been working with tribes, schools and other groups to bring back endangered Indigenous languages. Now, with the creation of the Northwest Regional Native American Language Resource Center, it will be even better positioned to help Indigenous students in the region learn and speak their tribal languages.
The center will “take the essential pieces of what NILI does and allow us to grow, said Janne Underriner, founding director of NILI. “We’re not starting from scratch--we have a long track record of doing this work.”
For centuries, the United States government has enforced colonial assimilation policies upon Indigenous people, to eradicate their life ways, language and culture. For more than 150 years, children were forcibly sent to boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their own language and practicing their traditions.
Today, the dozens of different Indigenous languages spoken throughout the Pacific Northwest are mostly stewarded by small numbers of people. These traditional languages provide a vital connection to culture and community. But as the number of elders who grew up speaking their tribal language dwindles, teaching new generations is more urgent than ever.
For Indigenous youth, being unable to speak their language “severs a connection between their elders and ancestors,” Underriner said. “Boarding schools took languages away. So I feel that now, working with the school districts and the university, it’s our work to [bring them back.].”
With the new funding, which will support the center for five years, NILI will expand its reach, building new connections in Alaska, Idaho and Montana and strengthening existing ones in Oregon and Washington.
The grant will also allow the team to create and compile shared resources and trainings, to support Tribal language programs in their own work. And they will work with school districts, state departments of education and tribes to develop language courses programs in schools and communities.
NILI adjusts their approach depending on the needs of different tribes or communities. But across the board, by learning their tribal languages, “kids say they have more of a sense of identity and connection with their community,” Underriner said. “They talk about the sacredness of language—it’s an honoring of their people, and the last speakers of the language.”
-Laurel Hamers, University Communications