Inforain Ecotrust

Assessing the Status of Native Language Groups, 1995

Keywords: People, Indigenous, Language

(An excerpt from The Rain Forests of Home: An Atlas of People and Place)

Determining the status of Native language groups is fraught with difficulties of many kinds. The first is that setting boundaries around language "groups," individual languages and dialects is inevitably an arbitrary effort. Wayne Suttles, who recently mapped the language groups of the Northwest Coast, took pains to point out the different meanings and implications of the terms "languages, " "related languages," "language families" and the hypothetical "language phyla." The true diversity of languages within a region is not fully captured by any particular method of distinguishing them.

The contemporary status of Native languages is bound up in the history of particular villages and tribes—their territorial status, the nature of recognition granted them by the governments of Canada or the United States, and the various tribal amalgamations that have taken place since the coast was settled by people of European descent. It is by no means surprising that this history and its consequences should have rendered the interpretation of language status considerably more difficult.

The language groups represented in this map are those identified and mapped by anthropologists Wayne Suttles (1985) and Michael Krauss (1982). In some cases the groups shown are themselves amalgamations of several adjacent languages. The estimates of historical populations of native speakers summarized in this table (roughly indicating populations at the time of European exploration and first contact) are from various volumes of Handbook of North American Indians (Sturtevant 1990).

The assignment of language groups to categories of current status in this table (Extinct, Spoken by <10, etc.) was based on estimates for the number of fluent speakers of each language group in 1994 by Professors Jay Powell of the University of British Columbia and Michael Krauss of the Alaska Native Language Center of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (for groups north of California) and by Professors Leanne Hinton and Yolanda Montijo of the University of California, Berkeley (for groups in California). In the few cases where two authorities differed on the status of a particular language group, the authors of this report chose the more precise assessment, or erred on the side of over-, rather than underestimating the number of speakers. We are, of course, responsible for any errors of assignment that resulted.

First Nations Language Groups: Historical and Current Status
Number of
SE AK2 3 ~15,000 Spoken by <10: 1
Spoken by >100: 2
BC 18 ~81,000 Extinct: 1
Spoken by <10: 4
Spoken by 10-100: 7
Spoken by >100: 5
Status unknown: 1
WA 16 ~45,000 Extinct: 7
Spoken by <10: 7
Spoken by 10-100: 1
Spoken by >100: 1
OR 15 ~42,000 Extinct: 11
Spoken by <10: 1
Status unknown: 3
CA 16 ~51,000 Extinct: 7
Spoken by <10: 5
Spoken by 10-100: 4
68 ~234,000 Extinct: 26
Spoken by <10: 18
Spoken by 10-100: 12
Spoken by >100: 8
Status unknown: 4
1 Estimated number of speakers of listed languages at time of European exploration af the Northwest Coast.
2 Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian are spoken in both Alaska and Canada; in this table Haida and Tsimshian are grouped with the B.C. languages because the majority of their speakers reside in Canada.
Note: The map above does not show all of the languages represented in this table.
Sources: Estimates based on Sturtvant (1990), Hinton and Montijo (1993), Krauss (1994), Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer (1992), and personal communications.

Estimating the total number of language speakers alone can be misleading. A better way to approach this type of analysis is to compare the number of speakers to the total population, and more importantly, to categorize the number of speakers by age group. Michael Krauss has collected much of this information for the northern portion of the rain forest region, and any future analyses should incorporate this data and methodology.

The status of language groups is not static. Some still spoken in 1994 may now be extinct, and some then considered extinct, or nearly so, are being "reawakened" (to use the term favored by Native language advocate Vi Hilbert of the Upper Skagit Tribe in Washington state) through painstaking tribal efforts. But the overall pattern of loss has not yet been reversed, and as Richard and Nora Marks Dauenhauer of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation have written (1992), "If a Native American language dies, there is no place on earth one can travel to learn it."

Map based on technical analysis by Andrew P. Mitchell, Randall H. Hagenstein, Lisa J. Lackey, and Marko Z. Muellner.

Map by: Pacific GIS
Created: January 1, 1995


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