Home-grown Diversity

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http://nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/infinityofnations/woodlands/011125.html

November is officially National American Indian Heritage Month. It also is Alaska Native Heritage Month.* The contribution that native cultures have made to mainstream America may be invisible to the average American, but these are our fellow citizens and their diversity adds strength to this most diverse of countries.

Indigenous North Americans invite everyone, including us descendants of immigrants to North America, to consider the cultural and linguistic heritages of speakers of over 200 small language communities that were here long before my European progenitors even knew there was a North America. Our American Indian and Native Alaskan populations are what remain of the people whose ancestors (or grandparents) flourished for centuries on this huge continent. The largest indigenous language group in the United States, Navajo, currently has about 120,000 speakers. The smallest language, or at least one tied for that dubious distinction, Wakchumni, came from a language group that once had 50,000 speakers living in central California. Now it only has only one speaker and she is 81 years old.

Unite for Literacy is dedicated to removing the largest single barrier to basic literacy development in all languages—lack of culturally and linguistically relevant books. We are only at the beginnings of establishing what we seek: Picture Book Abundance for new readers in any language in the world—For Free, For Everyone, Forever.

We currently provide narrations in up to 25 languages for each of our picture books. We are just getting started of course, as across the world there are about 6,800 languages all tolled. Current estimates suggest that the world loses another language about once every three months. When we lose a language, we forever lose a culture and a way of life, and with them, knowledge that came from the unique history and circumstances of that language community. Needless to say, our commitment to creating worldwide picture book abundance for new readers in every language means that we won’t be running out of work very soon.

We are delighted that our mere 25 languages make our books accessible to children in families of nearly 3 billion people worldwide…almost half the planet! Several of our 25 languages, however, are not what anyone would consider major or influential languages. Yes, we have Chinese, English, Spanish, French, German, Hindi, Arabic, Russian and even American Sign Language. These are natural choices that help us maximize our value to as many new readers as we can. However, we also are dedicated to making sure we contribute to literacy for speakers of indigenous languages like Wakchumni and the  small cultures, that in the U.S., have been effectively drowned in succeeding waves of immigration.

So, in addition to major languages we also have Cup’ik and Karenni and Mopan and Kekchi and Q’anjob’al. Other languages we are courting include Cherokee, Inupiak, Oneida, Menominee, Spokane and Iroquois. These are indigenous languages, and while they have been spoken in the Americas for hundreds of years, are totally foreign to most Immigrant-heritage Americans.

Please, Unite for Literacy. Join us in doing what you can to honor the languages and cultures of these first Americans during their special month.

*Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is in May

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2 Responses to “Home-grown Diversity”

  1. Irasema Ortega November 14, 2014 at 1:02 am #

    Dear Mark,

    I am so excited about the Unite for Literacy project! I work with the teachers in the Cup’ik immersion wing in Chevak. The Cup’ik Head Start and the K-3 immersion wing will benefit immensely from these books. In an ideal world the book fairs, libraries and classrooms in rural indigenous settings should offer books in the native language. United for Literacy is a big step in the right direction.
    Quyana!
    Cikigaq-Irasema Ortega Ph.D
    Assistant Professor of Science Education
    University of Alaska Anchorage

    • Mark Condon November 20, 2014 at 11:48 am #

      Thanks for your kind words, Dr. Ortega! …and thank you for the work you do for developing literacy in home languages!