In federal Indian law, the treaty operates as our foundational legal text. Reflecting centuries-old historical political arrangements between Indian nations and the United States, treaties remain vital legal instruments that decide dozens of legal cases each year. Yet, these treaties — originally drafted in English by the federal government, following negotiations with tribal representatives who usually spoke their own languages — present a number of ambiguities for contemporary courts. The dominant model of treaty interpretation is one in which judges interpret treaties in a manner they they believe to reflect Indians’ understanding of treaty terms and, more generally, to promote the interests of Indian nations. While this liberal approach to treaty interpretation has secured a number of important Indian rights in the courts, it does not necessarily reflect the ways in which Indians actually perceived treaty terms in their own languages and cultures.
From the NYTs:
RIVERTON, Wyo. — At 69, her eyes soft and creased with age, Alvena Oldman remembers how the teachers at St. Stephens boarding school on the Wind River Reservation would strike students with rulers if they dared to talk in their native Arapaho language.
“We were afraid to speak it,” she said. “We knew we would be punished.”
More than a half-century later, only about 200 Arapaho speakers are still alive, and tribal leaders at Wind River, Wyoming’s only Indian reservation, fear their language will not survive. As part of an intensifying effort to save that language, this tribe of 8,791, known as the Northern Arapaho, recently opened a new school where students will be taught in Arapaho. Elders and educators say they hope it will create a new generation of native speakers.
From the LA Times (thanks to Patrick O’Donnell for pointing this out):
SANTA YNEZ — A generation ago, the ancient Chumash tongue of Samala was all but dead, its songs and sagas buried in a university basement beneath mountains of yellowing research notes.
But now Samala is the talk of the reservation.
Thanks largely to a non-American Indian graduate student who was working for pocket money 40 years ago, the tribe has unveiled the first major Samala dictionary, a key moment in the language’s rebirth.