University of Oregon gets over $1.7 million for tribal language education

The University of Oregon’s Northwest Indian Language Institute plans to create a resource center to revitalize Indigenous languages.

The Institute will use over $1.7 million in funding from the US Department of Education to make it happen, according to the university.

Over the past 26 years, the Northwest Indian Language Institute (NILI) has worked with tribes, schools and other groups to preserve 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,” a release said.

The center hopes to “take the essential pieces of what NILI does and allow us to grow, Janne Underriner, founding director of NILI, said. “We’re not starting from scratch - we have a long track record of doing this work.”

The federal government of the United States historically favored assimilation of Native Americans.

“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,” the release said.

Dozens of Native American languages are spoken in the Pacific Northwest today.

Not being able to speak an indigenous language is bad for Native American youth, Underriner said.

Underriner said that it “severs a connection between their elders and ancestors. 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.].”

The school received enough funding to support the center for five years. NILI will use the money to increase its reach and build new connections in Alaska, Idaho, and Montana.

The team will use the grant to make and compile shared trainings and resources, to support Tribal language programs. They will also work with school districts, state departments of education and tribes to create language courses in schools and communities.

When kids learn 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.”

As of 2018, only eight native languages in Oregon had people who spoke them – down from over 100, according to the Quartux Journal.


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