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How Charter Schools are Helping Tribes Keep Their Native Languages Alive

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By Lesli A. Maxwell. Cross posted from the Learning the Language blog. 

Preserving indigenous languages and repairing decades of cultural loss is critical to most, if not all, of the nation's tribal communities, and charter schools seem to be playing a notable role in that endeavor.

A small number of charter schools have been founded over the last two decades to educate Native American students, with many providing instruction in native languages and curricula infused with tribal cultural beliefs and practices.

But a wave of charters and proposed charters have been popping up in more recent years—and in less likely places—with the express purpose of reviving nearly lost indigenous languages.

Right now, a group of tribal leaders and educators In Massachusetts are seeking to open a charter school by next fall on Cape Cod, as part of broader effort to resurrect Wôpanâak, an all-but-dead language that had been spoken by a collective of tribes known as the Wampanoag Nation. The language had not had a living, fluent speaker in more than 100 years when the first efforts to revive Wôpanâak began.

Massachusetts' state education agency is currently reviewing the group's charter application.

The school—proposed as a K-5 (starting as a K-1, and adding one grade each year) language immersion school—would provide instruction in core academic subjects such as math and science in the Wôpanâak language. The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project—the nonprofit organization behind the charter proposal—has been providing community language courses, developing curricula for adult learners, as well as an elementary curriculum only in Wôpanâak.

Last year, in Idaho, the state's first charter school offering Native-language immersion opened to help recover the Shoshone language by creating a young generation of fluent speakers.

More established language-immersion charters are operated by the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe in Wisconsin, one of six bands of the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa Indians.

Recovering decades of linguistic and cultural loss is a major priority for all manner of schools that serve American Indian students, not just charters. The Window Rock school district, which serves the Navajo Nation in Arizona, runs a Navajo language-immersion school that has outperformed other elementary schools in the district. Last year, I wrote about the Lakota Language Project at the Red Cloud Indian School, a private, Jesuit school, on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

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