Reestablishing Heritage Languages: Sustainable Thinking


March 15, 2015

At the Winter Talk conference in Tulsa in few weeks ago, I found myself listening to Dr. Richard Grounds, founder of the Euchee Language Project. He spoke about how the Doctrine of Discovery encouraged the loss of indigenous languages. This loss, he noted, is more than the loss of words and phrases, it is the loss of culture and ways of being. Furthermore, because the loss of language (and in turn culture) in the America’s is intentional (and historically supported) by non-indigenous governments, it is one of many cogs in a wheel of indigenous genocide. A point of Grounds is language is more than words; it is the way a people think and live.

When I heard language is the way a people think, I wandered from Grounds talk for a moment. The wandering took me to a time when a Spanish instructor of mine said, “you’re getting a handle on the language the moment you quit translating (in your head) from English to Spanish.” Because languages do not translate word for word, idea for idea, exactly, then Dr. Grounds comment about language being the way a people think has me thinking language is an important consideration for those who engage in the work of anti-racism and the dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery (DOD).

The way a people think holds great implications for US people. Let’s say a Spanish speaker is learning US English (Fair to accept US English is unlike English spoken elsewhere in the world?). The speaker is middle-age and has spent their life speaking only Spanish. They have always expressed their thoughts, values, morals through the Spanish language. Slowly s/he learns words, phrases, and moves to paragraphs and basic conversation. A day comes when they speak English without mentally translating their thoughts. At that moment, they begin to think with the values and morals of the English language. Being US English, values, that are rooted in the soil of colonization become their own. However, because they are a bi-lingual speaker, there is not a full assimilation of their thought process, but they have a good chunk. The next generations though have a different story. For the day a generation is raised without the language of their parents (grandparents) and are English only speakers, they can only process values and morals through the dominate US English language. As an English only speaker, the colonization values of US English are now their own. Should this go on for a generation or two, the values of the original language are lost and a way of thinking and living ends.

Under this construct, we can better understand why anti-racism and DOD repudiation work is so hard for US teachers and learners, people of color and white people, and Natives and non-Natives. For each of them—even though they know the evil of racism and intentionally work toward dismantling institutional racism—have only the US English language, naturally laced with colonization virtues, through which to process their thoughts and arguments. Therefore, it is important for anti-racism and DOD trainers to know the underpinning of their language works directly against the justice in which they engage. Bi-lingual folk on the other hand, have a step up on English only speakers. Being able to process their thoughts through a second language whose underpinning may not (many other languages also have DOD values embedded) so directly labor against their ideas, thoughts, philosophy, and theology, allows for alternative considerations.

If this is the case, then single language folk, whose work is dismantling the DOD and racism, must begin learning another language. More so, this case argues for barring laws, legislation that argue in favor of English only in texts, schools, workplaces, and churches. More so, it calls for generational work that moves the Americas to a bi-lingual landscape.

Should one buy the above argument, I would then argue economics should not be the litmus test for choosing the languages of our children. In other words, languages such as Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic should not be chosen because they lead to high wages, but because they are the language of heritage. To have a landscape of fluent heritage speakers, Diné, Gaelic, Sahaptin, German, Athabaskan, Scots, Sioux, Polish, in addition to those already mentioned, enriches society due to the diversity of languages and the multiple ways of processing thoughts and ideas. Even better, the speaker benefits, for having renewed their heritage language, they enter into a richness of self that comes with reconnecting forgotten ancestral relationships. If languages are the way a people think, then becoming a bi-language people leads to greater creativity, better understanding of neighbor, and richer thinking.


  1. Chockma’shki (thank you), Dave, for this reflection. I am trying to learn Chickasaw for just such a reason. (& boy, is it ever hard for me to learn.) As I read your post, I thought of the 3/13/15 Ted Talk on NPR in which “Teacher Phuc Tran tells a personal story of how being caught in a world between the subjunctive and indicative tense — yes, grammar — helped him find his identity.” Some languages do not have subjunctive tense. It makes for a whole different way of approaching “reality.” All the more reason for the church to encourage variety of mindsets as we seek ways of neutralizing the colonial effects of the DOD!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well said Blue Eagle. My years of struggling to learn Spanish has left me with only a bit of the language, yet what little I’ve learned has helped me think better. I’ve got to find the Ted Talk you mentioned and hear more. Your words also remind me that Nora Dauenhaur, Native American poet-linguist said, “If a Native American language dies, there is no place on earth one can travel to learn it.” We all need to do better to hold our language of heritage–most every American has been damaged from this loss. And you’re right, grasping that the loss of language is the loss of self, family, and community is indicative of the DOD and this loss is the reality of all American’s…which does call for the church to move beyond symbolic pronouncements and encourage the mindsets of many to find ways to deconstruct the DOD.


  2. Let me or us perhaps know Dave what you know about whether the DOD operates in some way south of the border with Mexico to the extent it does on the other side. Indigenous peoples of Mexico are visible in most of the larger population centers of Mexico, they are not settled on reservations and there is more widespread emphasis on preserving native languages here. Also, within a couple of hundred miles just about anywhere in Mexico you can visit the ruins of pre “discovery” settlements or cities. The past, and the richness of the cultures that are the story of the past are part of present day Mexico in a way many of us in the States have never experienced.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. First let me say I enjoy your writing at Erasing Borders. I encourage others to check out Doug Smith and Kate Moyer’s blog “Erasing Boarders” at…

      Great question! Allow me to use your question as the starting point for writing next weeks entry. I think I would like to flesh it out a bit more than I can in this reply. Be well, Dave


      1. thanks for working on this question I raise Dave. Look forward to what you come up with and if I think of something that might be helpful I’ll let you know.


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