Learning a Native American Language – Native American Pow Wows

Learning a Native American Language – Native American Pow Wows

Posted By Paul G October 28th, 2011 Last Updated on: November 25th, 2019

Why study an Indian language?

For the Indian peoples, tribal languages are important for keeping a strong sense of self-worth, community identity and for keeping their culture strong. For Native American students, knowing their tribal language well improves their self-confidence and helps  (rather than hinders) the learning of non-Indian languages. For people who do not speak Indian languages, learning an Indian  language is not necessary just to speak to Indian people. To some degree, most speak the dominant non-Indian language of the  country they are now apart of, such as English in the United States, English and/or French in Canada, or Spanish in Mexico and Latin America. However, learning an Indian language remains important for gaining a deeper understanding and respect for Native American culture and heritage (especially the ceremonies, songs, and stories) and for sharing that respect with the Indian people.


It is important to note that a few Native American tribes do not wish to share their language with outsiders, as they regard their language and certain  cultural features as private tribal property only. The ideal setting is the Indian home or tribal community setting where elders still  talk with the children. Listening and speaking with fluent speakers is the best way to learn a Native language.

When first meeting fluent speakers— just learn to relax! It is possible that they may frequently use their language in your presence,  but they are doing this because they enjoy their language and are proud of it. Forget the crazy idea that that they are just talking  about you; Chances are that they really have much more important things to do!

When conversing with them in English (or other  European language) be aware that they might have difficulty in translating your speech— so please have patience!  Also, it may be  necessary to avoid idioms and complicated words and to converse slowly and clearly with pauses between sentences. (And unless people have hearing problems, speaking loudly will not help!)

Other options for learning include language CDs (and other materials), online resources, smart phone apps or classes which are now available for some Indian languages. Because CDs are bilingual, most CDs for languages within the U.S. and Canada are designed for English  speakers and for tribes in most other countries of the Americas, most are designed for Spanish speakers. The material  presented and the teaching methods used will vary from author to author, so carefully select the sets you like best, if a choice is available for the language you are studying. In addition, a number of schools and colleges today also offer Indian language courses, especially for the Indian languages in their local areas.

Whether through private study or through a class, learning an Indian language requires lots of study, practice, and commitment. Because these patterns are generally different from those found in European languages, a sentence must have its words rearranged to match the pattern of the desired Indian language before it can be translated.

Start with short sentences. By using either a CD or teacher, start memorizing short sentences using the different word patterns.  Then try variations. In each sentence, substitute one new word at a time. Drill constantly and pay close attention in an effort to: start  thinking in the Native language, build up your Native language vocabulary, compare and learn the word patterns, and gain familiarity with the verbs. Also try recording your own sentences for more drill practice.

The written form of most Native languages is still quite new. Most have only been written for just 100-200 years. So, as yet, standardized spellings for words have generally not been agreed upon by all speakers. Keep this point in mind when using written

Native languages in active everyday use have a number of words of recent origin, like words for “airplane” and  “television.” Generally, these words are compound words that have been made by stringing together two or more older words to identify the new thing or idea. The new words keep the language adapted to the modern Indian life.


Progress may be slow, but your efforts will be rewarded. After several years of hard work, you will become a fluent speaker! It took the missionary Eugene Buechel about 10 years to become fluent in the Lakota language. While a young man in the early 1900s, he  spent as much time as possible among Lakota speakers in South Dakota. At the time, use of Lakota was common “on the street,” but he had few teaching aids available other than what he made for himself. Eventually, he compiled a Lakota-Sioux Dictionary. It was first published after his death in 1970.

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Penelope Smith

I liked that you explained that learning a Native American language can help you understand their songs and stories better. That is good to know if you want to take wisdom from their old legends. After all, some words probably can’t translate well into English or other languages.


I went to one session of beginner Ojibwe on my recent visit to Minnesota. Absolutely loved it, very interesting way to learn more about the culture. (I did check in advance of showing up to see if it was ok to attend as someone with no native ancestry.) It was a fantastic experience and I am very thankful I was able to attend.

Kay Carter

I would like to learn
Mohawk or any of the 6 trips of the north n.y.
My husband is part blackfoot and French.
I I know there are some other trips mix in.
Hope some one can help.

Pamala Takera Jack

What about the Comanche language? Also is there a language that was common to all natives?

Diana SingingHorse

Do you have any instruction on the Mikasuki or Seminole languages? They are not offered by Rosetta Stone and I only know a few words as the language was not spoken at home. Please advise.

Scott Sedgwick

Im sauk fox tribe i want to learn my tribe Lagrange


Im yavapai native and my boyfriend is not. Not alot of fluent yavapai speakers in my tribe mainly the elders speak. But I been studying alot and getting more fluent but my boyfriend always tells me its pointless to learn a dead Language and I look crazy because this generation does not care about the language but my grandparents spoke it fluent. Can I get your opinion about this.

Thomas Millard

I sincerely believe that anyone and everyone should learn the language of their ancestors. My mother’s mother did not know the language of the Mohawk and my father’s mother and father were not around very much and I didn’t learn about that side of my heritage until they had passed. I am getting on in years(near 70), and have a hard time memorizing anything. So please don’t give up on learning your grandmothers . Respectfully, Tom


I am a white guy from Utah with no native American ancestors. I speak three languages, all European (English, Spanish and French). From that I can tell you there is a lot of knowledge and culture that is in/transferred through a language. The Wampanoag tribe understands this. Their language went extinct but fortunately it had many written sources. They revived the language. It surely is not the old language as many aspects of the language were surely not written down, but at least they were able to recover some of it and now they are speaking it and teaching/speaking it to/with their children. If I had family who were fluent in an indigenous, I would most definitely become completely fluent in that language and then would only speak that language with my children to keep the language alive. It is incredibly sad that when the tribes were conquered by America, in that conquest the children of the tribes were forced to forget their native languages through boarding schools and other means. This was done to fully conquer them, for by taking away someone’s language you remove their culture and identity. A life goal of mine is to learn a native american language and then speak it with my children to keep that language alive. I do not have any friends or family who speak a language to learn from. This means in a few years I am going to get a job once I finish my school in a place that still has a language I can learn. This will most likely be the Navajo Nation or somewhere in North Alaska. Either way, I feel the need to help keep this important part of America’s heritage alive. P.S. Get a new boyfriend. A language is only dead if it is not spoken. It is not pointless if you can speak it with your family and hopefully a growing number of friends who are/become fluent in the language.

Thomas Millard

I am descended from three different tribesand only found out about the Mohawk from my mother’s mother when I was twelve. She didn’t know the language and couldn’t teach me. My mother denied being one fourth Mohawk until I was fifteen and then wouldn’t talk much about it. She would get angry at me when I tried to find out about my roots. At fifteen my father told me about his mother and father. His mother was half Cherokee and his father was French canuck and Algonquin and his father had come down to Vermont from Canada. I know at one time my mother’s mother had papers to prove the Mohawk ancestry and gave us reservation privileges. I don’t know how to go about trying to trace them. I want to learn the Cherokee language and the Cherokee way but I do better with videos but I’m not very good with computers. My Dad started teaching me the ways of the wood and different plants that were for eating or healing but never said so. I was only a boy and was glad to have the time with him which a very rarely got. Not his fault. Is there someone who can help me accomplish my goal? I am 67 years old and would like to learn as much as I can before I leave this mortal world.


i would really like to know how to speak native american i was told that im cherokee and blackfoot.

Mary Goodner

I was told that i am half Apache i would like to learn that language if that is part of my back ground my daughter look it up and that is what she found out about my back ground and that i was part of the chief he was my great great grandfather.I just would like to know how to find out all of this.

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