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Decolonizing Education: Native Americans

This guide was originally created for the use of instructors and students in the reACT Decolonizing Education Experiential Learning Program funded by the 2022-2023 TLTC Curriculum Grants. Specifically: ARCH460; ARCH478; ARCH601; ARCH678; CHBE473; ENCH648


Language sovereignty is the right to be able to have your language and speak your language. . . . So often you hear people say, “Tribes, native people, have lost their language.” It wasn‟t lost; it was stolen or taken away. With the boarding schools many native languages were brought to the edge of extinction. . . .Tribes are doing their best to bring back their languages, but most recently that is due to legislation, grants, and tribes having more financial resources in order to create additional opportunities for their people to learn and speak their languages.  -- Kathy Lewis, Director, American Indian Studies, North Idaho College

Arriving at a definition of language sovereignty requires an awareness of how language captures elements of culture, understanding of Native American history and recognition of the deliberate suppression of tribal languages in forced assimilation.  Arguably there is nothing more culturally distinctive than the language of a tribe or group. Whether it is used in religious ritual or everyday practice, the tribe‟s traditional language is their connection to ancestors, culture, and knowledge essential to survival, morality, and cosmology, as well as personal identity.  Sovereignty manifested in cultural acts and conducted in relation to land qualifies a unit – a tribe or country – to be considered self-governing, autonomous, and self-directing, with a group identity expressed through a language. 


Using appropriate terminology to talk about Native nations shows respect for nations’ sovereignty.

The land that surrounds us is part of who Indigenous people are; it is a reflection of their histories.  We need to protect and honor the history and people of these places.  Native nations negotiated government to government, preserving their sovereign land, rights, and privileges through treaties. When land wasn’t ceded through good faith efforts, it was often stolen from Indigenous Nations. -- Native Governance Center. (2021) Native Nations 101

Younging, G. (2018) Elements of Indigenous style: a guide for writing by and about Indigenous Peoples. eBook. Elements of Indigenous Style provides guidelines to help writers, editors, and publishers produce material that reflects Indigenous people in an appropriate and respectful manner. Gregory Younging, a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, has been the managing editor of Theytus Books, the first Aboriginal-owned publishing house in Canada, for over 13 years. Elements of Indigenous Style evolved from the house style guide Gregory developed at Theytus in order to ensure content was consistent and respectful. This guide contains: A historical overview of the portrayal of Indigenous peoples in literature; Common errors and how to avoid them when writing about Indigenous peoples; Guidance on working in a culturally sensitive way; A discussion of problematic and preferred terminology; Suggestions for editorial guidelines."


The Ethical Principles for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage have been elaborated in the spirit of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and existing international normative instruments protecting human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples. They represent a set of overarching aspirational principles that are widely accepted as constituting good practices for governments, organizations and individuals directly or indirectly affecting intangible cultural heritage in order to ensure its viability, thereby recognizing its contribution to peace and sustainable development.

Complementary to the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the Operational Directives for the Implementation of the Convention and national legislative frameworks, these Ethical Principles are intended to serve as basis for the development of specific codes of ethics and tools adapted to local and sectoral conditions.

  1. Communities, groups and, where applicable, individuals should have the primary role in safeguarding their own intangible cultural heritage.
  2. The right of communities, groups and, where applicable, individuals to continue the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills necessary to ensure the viability of the intangible cultural heritage should be recognized and respected.
  3. Mutual respect as well as a respect for and mutual appreciation of intangible cultural heritage, should prevail in interactions between States and between communities, groups and, where applicable, individuals.
  4. All interactions with the communities, groups and, where applicable, individuals who create, safeguard, maintain and transmit intangible cultural heritage should be characterized by transparent collaboration, dialogue, negotiation and consultation, and contingent upon their free, prior, sustained and informed consent.
  5. Access of communities, groups and individuals to the instruments, objects, artefacts, cultural and natural spaces and places of memory whose existence is necessary for expressing the intangible cultural heritage should be ensured, including in situations of armed conflict. Customary practices governing access to intangible cultural heritage should be fully respected, even where these may limit broader public access.
  6. Each community, group or individual should assess the value of its own intangible cultural heritage and this intangible cultural heritage should not be subject to external judgements of value or worth.
  7. The communities, groups and individuals who create intangible cultural heritage should benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from such heritage, and particularly from its use, research, documentation, promotion or adaptation by members of the communities or others.
  8. The dynamic and living nature of intangible cultural heritage should be continuously respected. Authenticity and exclusivity should not constitute concerns and obstacles in the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage.
  9. Communities, groups, local, national and transnational organizations and individuals should carefully assess the direct and indirect, short-term and long-term, potential and definitive impact of any action that may affect the viability of intangible cultural heritage or the communities who practise it.
  10. Communities, groups and, where applicable, individuals should play a significant role in determining what constitutes threats to their intangible cultural heritage including the decontextualization, commodification and misrepresentation of it and in deciding how to prevent and mitigate such threats.
  11. Cultural diversity and the identities of communities, groups and individuals should be fully respected. In the respect of values recognized by communities, groups and individuals and sensitivity to cultural norms, specific attention to gender equality, youth involvement and respect for ethnic identities should be included in the design and implementation of safeguarding measures.
  12. The safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage is of general interest to humanity and should therefore be undertaken through cooperation among bilateral, sub regional, regional and international parties; nevertheless, communities, groups and, where applicable, individuals should never be alienated from their own intangible cultural heritage.


US Department of the Interior. Indian Affairs. Office of Indian Economic Development (2022) Indian Affairs Makes Significant Investment to Protect and Preserve Native Languages: Living Languages Grants awarded to 45 Tribes and Tribal organizations.  Press Release.

The Living Languages Grant Program provides an opportunity for Tribes to receive funding to document and revitalize languages that are at risk of disappearing because of a declining native-speaker population. For more than 150 years, Native languages in the U.S. have been subjected to suppression and elimination from a variety of factors such as federal boarding and other types of schools that forced American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children to forgo speaking the language of their peoples.

“Native language preservation has for many years been cited by Indigenous leaders as important to their self-preservation, self-determination and sovereignty. Native preservation and language revitalization is a critical priority because languages go to the heart of a Tribe’s unique cultural identities, traditions, spiritual beliefs and self-governance,” said Assistant Secretary Newland. “Through the Living Languages Grant Program and other interagency efforts, the Biden-Harris administration is working to invest in and strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship and ensure that progress in Indian Country endures for years to come.”

10-year National Plan on Native Language Revitalization, the Biden Administration is considering the development of a Plan that would lay out a long-term, all-of-government strategy that works with Tribal Nations and, as appropriate, non-profit organizations, subject-matter experts, and other entities for the revitalization, protection, preservation, and reclamation of Native Languages.

The core aspects of the Plan may include a focus on creating a national awareness on the importance of Native languages; recognizing the role the U.S. played in erasing Native languages; integrating Native language learning in mainstream educational systems and the promotion of Native language reclamation in Federal policies; and identifying a wide range of funding and resources for Native language revitalization. See the Framing Document.

Executive Order 14049—White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Native Americans and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities.  The Federal Government is committed to protecting the rights and ensuring the well-being of Tribal Nations while respecting Tribal sovereignty and inherent rights of self-determination.