Some more Native American (and a bit of native Irish) news, from The Atlantic:

“Loris Taylor, the CEO and president of Native Public Media, still has the scars on her hands from when she was caught speaking Hopi in school and got the sharp end of the ruler as a result. “They hit so hard, the flesh was taken off,” she remembers. “Deep down inside, it builds some resistance in you.”

Now, she’s at the forefront of a movement to revive dead and dying languages using an old medium: radio. As CEO and president of Native Public Media, she’s lobbied the FCC and overseen projects to get increasingly rare tongues like Hopi onto airwaves so that Native Americans can keep their ancestors’ ways of speaking alive—and pass those ways of speaking to new generations.

“At a certain time, people thought ‘We live in a white man’s world and have to change our language to make it.’ But now we see how wrong that was.”

Similar efforts are taking place worldwide. In Ireland, Dublin’s youthful Top-40 Raidió Rí-Rá and Belfast’s eclectic indie Raidió Fáilte have been broadcasting entirely in Irish for several years. In Washington, D.C. earlier this month, indigenous radio producers from Peru, Mexico, Canada, El Salvador, and a handful of other countries gathered for the “Our Voices on the Air” conference, organized by the 40-year-old non-profit Cultural Survival and the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices program.

Following centuries of oppression that have marginalized minority languages, radio represents a modest but surprisingly promising way to reinvigorate the traditions keeping those languages alive. In the Maori community of New Zealand, for example, the combination of 21 radio stations and rigorous early childhood immersion programs have brought Maori-languages speakers from an all-time low of 24,000 in the 1980s to 131,000 in 2006, according to Mark Camp, deputy executive director at Cultural Survival.

The swift and sure loss of indigenous language in the U.S. was hardly an accident. From the latter part of the 19th century to the latter part of the 20th, the Bureau of Indian Affairs systematically sent generations of Native American kids into boarding schools that were more focused on punishment and assimilation than on education. In a piece for NPR in 2008, Charla Bear reported on the terrible conditions that persisted at these schools for a century—how kids were given Anglo names, bathed in kerosene, and forced to shave their heads.

In recent years, the government has taken steps to reverse some of the damage. In 1990, the Native American Languages Act was passed, recognizing the right of indigenous populations to speak their own language.

Still, the effects of centuries of forced assimilation run deep. Richard Alun Davis, station manager for Arizona Hopi station KUYI 88.1 FM, says that the disappearing vocabulary creates a “complex tapestry of shame” in the approximately 9,000-person population his station reaches.

“Even if they can speak, they usually do not do it outside of the home for fear of being corrected,” he says. Because the Hopi religious tradition is firmly rooted in the language, “It’s not only a moment of discomfort with the literacy. It’s also showing that you’re unable to participate in all the culture.”

Let’s Bring Back ‘Gal’ Davis, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Brit who fell in love with Native American literature in college and speaks Hopi (“people joke that I’ve created my own dialect”), believes that radio is the easiest way to counteract these bleak statistics. His station, KUYI, covers three counties, from the border of the Grand Canyon National Park, up to the Utah border, and down toward Winslow. Its programs include a junior and senior high school class that broadcasts in Hopi, a morning Sunday show aimed at small children, and cultural discussions for adults that are held according to the lunar calendar, in keeping with Hopi tradition.

Congress’s passage of the Community Radio Act in 2011 means that community radio stations could soon—in Camp’s words—”mushroom,” which offers a lot of potential for Native American media on reservations, where there is usually little infrastructure and in many cases no electricity (certainly no wifi). In these areas, a low-power FM station that’s plugged into the grid in the center of town allows people with battery-powered, handheld radios to listen in to what’s happening all around them.”

Just a reminder that Ireland’s Irish-language television station TG4 is a founding member of the World Indigenous Television Broadcasters Network (WITBN), something we should all be proud of.

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