As we all know, the words we use define us as much as we use them to define the world around us. The issue of language retention among American Indian Tribes is a hot one for good reason. How much of a role does/should language have in defining cultural identities? As the Pamunkey of Virginia are aware, loss of an ancestral language can lead to problems, including questions from outsiders about whether a valid tribal identity truly exists.
On October 14 the Pamunkey filed a petition seeking federal recognition with the US Government. The Pamunkey have a rich and well documented history including famous figures such as Powhatan and Pocahontas. In spite of the fact that the Pamunkey Indian Reservation is the oldest continuously inhabited reservation in the United States, it has taken them 30 years to pull together documentation they hope will prove to the US Federal Government and others who may be skeptical that they deserve recognition.
A current exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian featuring the Pamunkey includes footage of tribal members talking about the their attempts to retain their cultural identity in spite of the loss of their native language over a century ago. Chief Kevin Brown hopes to be able to introduce Algonquin language classes to the community in part of an effort to reestablish ties with other Powhatan-descended tribes.
All tribes today, regardless of size, are left negotiating the issue of language and identity. How the various sovereign nations seek to resolve the issue is likely to change to reflect the needs and realities of the times and of the individual nations themselves. How can language be most effectively taught and/or retained? Where should the responsibility for language preservation lie, and how much weight should the responsibility carry? These are questions for which the answers may vary from tribe to tribe, but which need to be kept fresh in public discourse.
For more on the Pamunkey’s bid to gain Federal recognition see DailyPress.com‘s story about it.
To learn more about the Pamunkey, please visit their website.