Pick of the Day : Native American Langauges

In today’s Pick of the Day, for D’s Art Takes, I Divvya Nirula present my take on – “Native American Langauges”

The Lost Languages

The Native American lore is legendary. The myths, the stories of spirit animals, the names with deeply spiritual meanings, all in conjunction with the culture. But there lies behind it a grim truth. Just the way the Native Americans have two names – there are two versions to their history. Just the way Thanksgiving holds different meanings for the Americans and the Native Americans. One is that which has been written by the victors and that which belongs to the people.

In a way – the oral tradition may as well be a safer way to protect knowledge and information. Being passed between those who speak and understand the language and are from the soil won’t taint it. In its retelling, the sides won’t change. The Native Americans were all in all mystical people who had lived for centuries and honed their skills and nurtured their knowledge.    

First Foot Steps

During the Ice Age, humans found their way across the Bering land bridge, from Asia into Alaska. Their descendants traveled along the west coast of North America in 1000 BC. They had covered nearly the entire continent. So it is a guess as to when the first people arrived in the Americas. Some archaeologists believe it might have been about 12000 BC.

Eventually, they migrated across the continents. The American Indians developed many languages and customs. There are as many different tribal nations in the Americas. As there are nations in Europe, Asia, or Africa, and there is as much variety among them.

Native Americans developed states after 2000 BC. They established vast trade routes across the continents. American Indian cities were as big as the cities in Europe and Asia at that time. The fabulous architecture is greatly admired.

Columbus’s voyages to the “New World” in 1492 opened up these areas for European invasions. Where the natives taught them survival, the Europeans brought deadly diseases. These unfamiliar diseases spread quickly often wiping out populations of many native cities. The colonizers were looking to cultivate new farmlands and create new jobs for the growing populations of Europe. Immunity, ammunition, and large numbers were against the native tribes.

Eventually, many were forced to give up their lands, giving up resistance. In the regions of present-day southern Canada, the United States, and southern South America, survivors were involuntarily moved to specific areas, called reservations. In Mexico, Central America, and northern South America, the native people lived as peasants and laborers, under Spanish rule.

The Original Languages

American Indian languages were the languages spoken by the original inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere and their modern descendants. Naturally spread over various tribes, these American Indian languages cannot form a single historically connected stock. They are without structural features (like phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary). American Indian is a compendium of ideas, symbols, phrases. It is a language that is alive and needs to be understood.

Before the Columbian era,  American Indian languages encompassed both continents and the islands of the West Indies. This was with considerable differences in the distribution of the languages and language groups and in the size of the populations that spoke these languages.

Regional Groups

In the north of Mexico, there were a number of language groups— the Eskimo-Aleut, Algonquian, Athabascan, and Siouan. They each covered large territories and included some 20 or more closely related idioms. Other language groups, however, were smaller and the areas containing them correspondingly more diverse in language.

Mesoamerica had a much larger Indian population. They spoke at least 80 languages. Some of these languages—  Aztecan, Mayan—belonged to large and complexly organized empires.

South America had an aboriginal population of between 10 million and 20 million and the greatest diversity of languages—more than 500 languages. Most of the population was in the Andean region, where there was also a powerful Indian empire, that of the Incas. Their Quechuan languages spread beyond their original homeland in the southern Peruvian highlands and resulted in the extinction or reduction of many other Indian tongues.

Today Native American populations across both continents are once again on the rise. Native American leaders are achieving greater political success in fighting for the rights of their people. In addition, recent widespread concern over human rights has prompted governments and others to respect Native American cultures and traditions when responding to their needs.

Unrivalled & Lost Literature

The compositions, poems, histories, accounts, and songs of these tribes provided a wealth of information as well as wisdom. This was the hallmark of the language. Drenched in spirituality it provided the seeker with much more than what they were seeking. Unfortunately, they completely depended on the oral tradition to preserve knowledge and transfer information. The rare drawings, illustrations, and documents that exist are deliberations and deviations of a kind. Events were full of traditional songs and couplets. The sayings are popular to the present day.

 It would not be correct to say that they didn’t have a codified system, but it was not the Native American way of life. Customs had to be lived and traditions needed to be remembered. The Europeans were meticulous in their fact collection and journaling and their writings have often provided vital knowledge about these cultures.

Sometimes it feels that the language was like secret wisdom that needed to be sought and received. The knowledge was everywhere and there was no way that they thought that binding it to pen and paper would benefit. Once again an unfortunate loss for the tremendous amount of knowledge that will now remain silent and undiscovered. 

Reading Recommendation

#1 ‘Indians, Slaves, and Mass Murder: The Hidden History’, an essay from The New York Review of Books, written by anthropologist Peter Nabokov. His version is difficult to read as he outlines the bloodshed that happened, without gloss. His essay notes that colonizers reduced California’s native population from 350,000 at first contact to under 17,000 by 1900.Its important to have a cultural understanding of how a few people in the places of power could and did alter countless lives.

#2 A Map to the Next World: Poems by Joy Harjo. Published in 2000 by W. W. Norton Company


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