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Fort Lewis College to put $1.5 million toward Native language revitalization

Summer institute will begin in 2024 and feature four Indigenous languages
A student-led drumming group at Fort Lewis College. (Paolo Zialcita/Colorado Public Radio file)

Fort Lewis College is on a mission to revive Native and Indigenous languages, and it has received a $1.5 million Mellon grant to pursue that goal.

Students at FLC represent more than 180 Native American tribes and Alaska Native villages.

The grant will bolster the Department of Native American and Indigenous Studies’ All Our Nations Language Revitalization Hub in a three-pronged project aiming to shape Native language curricula.

Sociology and human services professor Janine Fitzgerald said there is a “real urgency among Native students” who want to learn their Native languages. Some former students have gone on to study their Native languages and become fluent to keep those languages alive, she said.

“The idea is that anything and everything that can be done about Native language revitalization is important,” she said.

Fitzgerald said 2022 begins the United Nations’ Decade of the Mother Tongue, a world-wide effort to revitalize Native languages and revive dormant ones.

Fitzgerald and Deanne Grant of Native American and Indigenous studies, who were behind the genesis of the new programs funded by the Mellon grant, said they weren’t initially aware of the Decade of the Mother Tongue, but it’s a convenient coincidence.

FLC is offering a summer language program called “All Our Kin,” which consists of three weeks of theme-based language learning. A community newsletter released by FLC describes the program as a humanities-based study of language themes meant to compare and contrast the students’ languages with Native languages.

FLC is also offering a nine-month, three-credit course called pedagogy for language revitalization that aims to educate community residents, teachers and students in best language teaching practices. The curriculum consists of “innovative language teaching pedagogies,” according to the college newsletter.

The third “prong” supported by the Mellon grant is the development of a Native Community Based Language Revitalization certification program. The program strives to empower graduates to take Native language education to their hometowns, backed by knowledge from FLC classes such as Native American and Indigenous studies, borders and languages, sociology and the School of Education.

The certificate demonstrates a knowledge of tribal governance, tribal politics and best practices for teaching Native languages. The certification program also includes the “All Our Kin” feature of reflection about one’s own Native language.

“When Native languages are lost or not spoken by children, the ability to live in the world with respect and esteem for all things also dies,” Fitzgerald said in a news release. “In order to disrupt and heal historical and personal trauma, empower youth and deal with the ecological crisis in which we find ourselves, we need to speak in languages that bring animacy and esteem to all.”

Grant, assistant professor of sociology and human services and Native American and Indigenous studies, said the Mellon grant-funded project is about “Indigenous reclamation, resurgence and identity, and being a contributor to these efforts is both humbling and meaningful.”

Fitzgerald said the summer institute will begin in 2024 and feature four languages. One of the languages has already been determined, Navajo, because many people still speak it and it is a useful language to learn. The others are yet to be decided and will depend on who the college can hire to teach the languages.

She lamented that the college cannot teach all the tribal and Alaska Native languages. But she said the summer course should rotate languages each semester.

The summer course will also contain a focus on animacy, how Native languages make the natural world feel alive – a feature English doesn’t offer, Fitzgerald said.

“It’s an exciting, empowering thing to learn what your language embodies that English does not do,” she said.

FLC has undertaken other efforts to support the Colorado and northern New Mexico Indigenous populations.

Last year, the college removed symbols from its iconic clock tower that whitewashed the school’s history as an Indigenous boarding school and the treatment of Indigenous people within it.

The college has offered tuition-free schooling to Native and Indigenous students since 1911, according to the college website’s history page.


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