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The Medium & the Message:

Native Languages as Cultural Keys

When Marshall McLuhan declared "The medium is the message", he was speaking about the impact of mass media upon a rapidly-accelerating American society. Racing toward information overload, the dominant culture was increasily besieged by an often-discordant jumble of messages and mediums. By the time we hit the 1990's, it was clear that McLuhan had aptly diagnosed message/media symptoms as both indicators of, and precursors toward, the modern social conditions.

But there's another interpretation of that famous statement. I'm sure that even McLuhan wasn't aware of the truth he spoke about the languages of native people. Today, linguists repeatedly intone the mantra of native language studies: "the language _is_ the culture."

Meanwhile, quietly, often stubbornly, Indian peoples held onto their languages. Often, only a few elders or a few families continued to be conversant in languages of many tribes that had, by the 1990's, been winnowed to only a few thousand members.

But it wasn't only small tribes that had problems retaining their original languages. Even those barely 100 years away from the last fights for freedom were worn down by the forcible attendance of children at boarding schools where beatings were administered for speaking the native tongue, plus attrition as resettlement programs (the new-fangled version of "removal') took people away from their families.

Today, however, Indian tribes are resurgent, economically, politically, and culturally. And, not coincidentally at all, there is also a rebirth of interest in the languages, and increasing numbers of tribes and communities relearning their native tongues.

As McLuhan said, the medium is indeed the message.

This page honors all the elders, tribal members, families, and friends who kept their tribal languages alive. Thanks to them, we are on the way to building new generations of full speakers within the languages that shape, contain, express, and keep alive our cultures.

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