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  • AutorenbildRebekah Olson

Native American Language Loss

To kick off our series on Native American languages (and their importance in the fight against climate change), let's take a look at the loss of languages once spoken throughout North America.


American Indian, Indian, Native American, Indigenous, or Native? There is not single correct term for describing the people who were living on the North American continent before and during European colonialization. Today, the consensus among indigineous people is that they prefer to be identified by their specific tribes. It's important to use the terminology the members of a community use to describe themselves collectively. When in doubt, do your research or ask.

Since this article refers collectively to the languages spoken by those native to the contient of North America, the term used herein will be Native American.


When Columbus sailed across the ocean blue, it is widely estimated that there were more than 15 million speakers of over 2,000 indigenous languages spoken throughout the Western Hemisphere.

And according to the Indigenous Language Institute, of the 300+ indigenous languages spoken in the U.S. at that time, only 175 remain today.

The ILI estimates that, without restoration efforts, by 2050 only 20 indigenous languages will remain.

“With the loss of these languages, all kinds of wonderful things their speakers did have also vanished, for example, many of the highly elaborate dances that accompanied the oral traditions. Large amounts of local knowledge about fauna and flora, ecosystem management, and so on are all submerged, altered or gone because the original languages that expressed these concepts are gone or no longer well understood.” - Andersen, Living Tongues


The European colonization of the North American continent was absolutely catastrophic to Native American people, culture, and language. By the 1950s, nearly 2/3 of all indigenous languages spoken throughout the Americas were considered dead or seriously endangered.

In modern day U.S. and Canada, 1/2 of the Native American languages have become extinct. Of those still in use, more than half have less than 1,000 speakers, making their durability outlook bleak.

A pile of American bison skulls in the mid-1870s. Photo: Wikipedia
A pile of American bison skulls in the mid-1870s.

During their colonization, European invaders began systematically killing off Native Americans at breakneck speeds.

Through disease, weaponry, land destruction, agriculture decimation, and animal obliteration, within a few decades Europeans had reduced the Native American population by 75-90%.

Between 1492 and 1900, the genocide of indigenous peoples living in U.S. territory caused a reduction in their numbers from 10 million to less than 300,000.

Like in many places of zealous colonization (Ireland, South Africa, Austrailia, etc.), the indigenous language loss suffered in North America was more than just an incidental consequence.

While many Native Americans were being systematically murdered, others were being forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands and forced to live on remote, tiny pieces of land that came to be known as reservations. Speakers of less common languages were forced to speak other indiginous languages at the expense of continuing to speak their own.

Worse still, between the mid-19th and early-20th centuries, Native Americans were sujected to the heinous practices of forced cultural assimilation, carried out through government-mandated boarding schools. Students were forbidden from speaking their tribal languages, wearing their tribal clothing, and observing their spiritual practices.

Check out @notoriouscree, who's bringing indigenous dancing to TikTok and Instagram:


Despite the U.S.'s genocidal beginnings, there are more than 350,000 speakers of 150 Native Native American languages spoken in the country today. According to census data, 350 languages in total are spoken in the U.S., making Native American languages account for almost half.

Sadly, many of these indigenous languages are on the brink of extinction.

Some, like the Navajo language are holding on. As the most spoken Native American language today, Navajo has 170,000 speakers.

With significantly fewer speakers, the next most-spoken indigenous language is Yupik, which is spoken in Alaska (19,750 speakers).

However, the vast majority of Native Americans today speak only English. Of the roughly 2.7 million people who identified as indigenous in the 2016 census, 73% spoke only English.

View of Canada from Mt. Constitution, Orcas Island, San Juan Islands, the Pacific Northwest

In our next article, we'll take a look at modern preservation efforts and the unique challenges therein. Stay tuned for how we can all help keep these critical languages alive for the people who speak it and for the protection of the environment we all live in ✌️

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