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On Native Languages

More than sixty distinct languages were spoken by the First Nations peoples living in the coastal temperate rain forest between Kodiak Alaska and San Francisco Bay. Many individuals were multilingual, thanks to parentage, marriage, or economic necessity. This linguistic diversity is surely a reflection of the region's ecological complexity. Today only eight of these languages are spoken by more than one hundred individuals.

Languages, though not necessarily synonymous with distinct cultures, express a bond between people and place that offers perhaps the closest human counterpart to the adaptive "fit" of genetically distinct salmon stocks to their ancestral coastal streams. Oral traditions, particularly the names and stories unique to a local group, also articulate a highly intimate, and evanescent understanding of place.

As Franz Boas and other early ethnographers who worked among the people of the Northwest Coast found, First Nations languages arose from a worldview almost unimaginable to the European mind. The Kwak'w'ala place names Boas recorded near the northern end of Vancouver island expressed events more than features. To the speakers of Kwak'w'ala places became memorable — and nameable — through the experiences that occurred in them.

First Nations Language Groups: Historical and Current Status
Approx. Region Number of Language Groups Historical Population Curren Status
SE AK 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
Total Rain Forest 68 ~234,000 Extinct: 26
Spoken by <10: 18
Spoken by 10-100: 12
Spoken by >100: 8
Status unknown: 4
These data are based on estimates in Sturtevant (1990), Hinton and Montijo (1993), Krauss (1994), and Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer

The table below reflects the status of First Nations language groups circa 1994. Some languages still spoken at that time may now be extinct, and some then considered nearly extinct have been "reawakened" (to use the term favored by Native language advocate Vi Hilbert of the Upper Skagit Tribe) through painstaking tribal efforts. But the overall pattern of loss has not been reversed.

It was United States policy, until just a few years ago, to eradicate all Indian languages. It was illegal to teach them in schools. I am part of the generation in which this language massacre reached its final stage: I learned only English. But those older languages are active in my brain. Even though I've become proficient in a language and speaking style entirely different from that of my Sahaptin-Wasco-Diné ancestors, I believe that the language I use in my poetry comes from the deep well of these American languages.

I am also part of the generation in which the possibility of regaining those languages has occurred. I could, for example, learn Salish, Sahaptin, or Diné at a university from fluent speakers. Interactive computer programs are being developed specifically for Native languages. One can hear, see, read, and learn to write them (even though they were not originally written languages).

I have heard from people who are Native speakers that to use their language is to be more efficient in thinking. One Inupiaq man who has several advanced degrees said to a friend, "It's a shame you don't know your own language. It would allow you to comprehend the universe with a much greater conceptual capacity." Eradication of Native languages through colonization has impacted massive stores of knowledge.

—Elizabeth Woody (adapted from Seven Hands, Seven Hearts)

Learn More

Maps of the Coastal Temperate Rainforest:

Original Distribution

Current Status

Watershed Condition

Read The Rain Forests of Home online at inforain.org



Characteristics of the Coastal Temperate Rain Forest


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