There was an enormous diversity of languages among native tribes across North America at the time of European contact.

Greensburg’s Thesis > 3 Basic Native Language Groups

Since the first immigrants to North America moved into the continent, as the glacial cover of the ice age melted and retreated, thousands of years had passed. Over that time different language groups would have come across Beringia (land bridge from Asia to North America) at different times – subsequent to each other. Some language theorists suggest that 2, 3 or as many as 62 different language families evolved. Some languages became extinct by themselves over time as the tribal group succumbed to its environment or were decimated by other tribes.

Sapir’s Thesis > 6 Basic Native Language Groups

Powell’s Thesis > 58 Basic Native Language Groups

The first arriving groups were nomadic hunters following the herds. As the herds moved so too did the native groups. As the herds split, the native groups that could have grown in size also split to follow different herds into new areas of the continent. As people split and moved, over thousands of years, their language evolved and changed. The changed language moved with the different tribal groupings.

Some languages were also eliminated by disease and brutality after the Europeans arrived. Some languages were imperilled by cultural imperialism imposed by Europeans placing native children into boarding/residential schools with the intent of removing the native culture and replacing it with a different immigrant culture (Europeans). There may be some irony here in that over thousands of years native tribes had imposed their culture onto other tribes causing those languages to be changed or extinguished. The residential school process was the latest iteration of that process.

[NOTE: Cultural values change over time. Attitudes and behaviours that were deemed to be cultural ‘normal’, acceptable, highly valued change over time. What was OK then is not necessarily OK now. In the context of current cultural values, there is a recognition that this forceful imposition of one culture onto another, against its will, has negative consequences for the current total population of a country. Thus, there is an attempt to understand the beliefs, values, interests and needs of each cultural group and find ways to “reconcile” differences. That will be discussed, with opportunities for viewers to provide constructive input to this site, under the heading of “Current Affairs” > Cultural Reconciliation.]

Due to local efforts, it is likely that several native languages will survive. Algonquian languages are under some threat, except perhaps within Canadian Cree and Ojibwa communities. In Ontario where there are ‘significant numbers’ of a native language group present, local school boards are funded to provide language instruction (as for French) in separate classes with a native language speaking instructor. These instructors are usually appointed by the local tribal band for placement at a particular school. Examples:

Native languages had been subject to negative criticism as there was a perception that many native languages had no written component. This may be ironic as most Europeans did not receive an elementary education until the 19th century, and then for those with the wealth and/or time to allow the youth to “not have to work” to support the family or community.

However, there is evidence of ‘written’ communications among various tribal groups:

  • Aztecs and Mayans used picture-writing,
  • Native Americans used images (petroglyphs) to tell stories
  • hieroglyphics on birch bark or animal hides
  • Ojibwa etched pictographs into birch-bark scrolls (symbols represented sounds of spoken sounds
  • Native words have been integrated into English (names of places or things)