Half of All Indigenous Languages Are Disappearing. Inside the Rush to Save Them

Of 194 languages remaining in North America, nearly 63 percent are spoken only by adults or elders. That’s why children's television programming is key.
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Photo by Dmitry Chulov/iStock.

A good puppet has to be liked, so Binnabánnaš was given a pair of friendly brown eyes, a set of uneven blue antlers, and leather shoes with red trim and curled toes reminiscent of samiske komagers, the traditional reindeer skin shoes worn by the Sámi, the indigenous people of Northern Europe.

He also has a job: to teach the Sámi language to children on Norwegian television on his own three-minute show. For example, Binnabánnaš teaches words that begin with the letter “B,” the difference between big and small, and colors. Think Sesame Street with an indigenous twist.

“Binnabánnaš could look like a reindeer calf, or it could be a cow calf. Some people thought it was a goat,” said Tamie Sue Runningen of NRK Sápmi, a unit of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation responsible for producing Sámi content. “It didn’t need to be one specific animal, but most of the Sámi will probably identify it as a reindeer.”

Reindeer herding is an iconic tradition practiced by the Sámi in the north, an area often referred to as Sápmi. Hunting and fishing are also common practices in Sámi communities, so Binnabánnaš will also have a fish sidekick named Ujujju.

“We want [children] to like both of them and feel that we have covered everybody that is in Sápmi and all the Sámi people and what they work with and what they have in their communities,” said Runningen.

More than 80,000 Sámi people call Northern Europe home and live across Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. They’re the largest indigenous group in Scandinavia, and it’s estimated that up to 35,000 speak the Sámi language. However, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has classified the language as endangered.

Binnabánnaš’s main goal is to keep the Sámi language alive in the next generation, but the character may also have a more subversive social role: demonstrating that indigenous culture is alive and growing in a world that has either forgotten or shown open contempt for its original people.

Binnabánnaš appears on air this fall to teach children about Sámi language and culture. Photos by Katri Heinämäki.

“I have a hope that through [Binnabánnaš] other kids will learn about the Sámi culture and learn about diversity,” said Runningen. “When they see some of the generalizations and challenges that the Sámi people have had in history, or any other indigenous people have had in history, that they’ll have a little better understanding of what that is and why some of those fights were important.”

According to the United Nations, more than 370 million indigenous people live in nearly 90 countries worldwide and speak up to 6,000 different languages—half of which are in danger of disappearing by the next century.

370 million indigenous people live in nearly 90 countries worldwide.

“They are not passed on to the younger generation, so there’s an interruption of transmission,” said Christopher Moseley, editor of UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. “As long as a language is taught to children by adults, then to that degree it’s safe for the future. But if adults see no reason, whether it’s economic or social or any other reason, to pass on the language to their children, then the language is doomed, really, because the slide can only get worse unless some active measures are taken.”

It’s estimated that of 194 languages remaining in North America, nearly 63 percent are spoken only by adults or elders. That’s where television and characters like Binnabánnaš can help.

“Children’s programming is really, really important both to preserve the language but also to pass on the cultural values,” said Duncan McCue, a correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and creator of Reporting in Indigenous Communities, an online guide for journalists working in Aboriginal communities. The Inuit Broadcasting Corporation has run puppet shows in Inuktitut for decades and has created Inuit superheroes.

Outside of the United States, indigenous programming is not uncommon. In Norway, NRK Sápmi broadcasts in the Sámi language; under NRK’s corporate strategy, Sámi language and culture is to be strengthened through culturally relevant programming. New Zealand has Māori Television. In Ireland, there’s TG4. And in countries like Canada, Australia, Taiwan, and South Africa, indigenous broadcasters have a place on TV.

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YES! illustration by Nicole Xu.

In the United States, indigenous broadcasting is on the rise, but it’s still relatively outside the mainstream. While media outlets like All Nations Network and FNX hope to become national providers of indigenous content, tribal broadcasters like the Cherokee Nation have begun broadcasting online and on local and regional stations.

“We’ve come off of a hundred years of history books that have not accurately depicted Native American tribes, let alone modern Native American tribes,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker. “But nobody can tell your story better than you can tell it.”

The Cherokee Nation’s 30-minute television magazine program, Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People, appears on stations around Oklahoma but can also be watched online, as requested by Cherokee citizens living in other parts of the United States and the world.

“Nobody can tell your story better than you can tell it.”

“Anybody anyplace in the world can stream the program, so it doesn’t matter where you live; it’s available any time of the day or night,” said Baker. “It gives us the opportunity to tell our story without letting someone else be in control of that story.”

But when it comes to finding a home on the national stage, Native American voices continue to struggle.

“America has so much to learn from contemporary Native Americans that they’re just not open to and they just don’t seem to be able to open the media landscape to those contemporary indigenous voices,” said McCue. “In other indigenous communities around the world, we’re beyond that to some degree.”

And it shows. On TG4, a new teen drama called Eipic follows “five rural teenagers who take over their local abandoned post office to start a musical revolution.” It’s broadcast in Gaeilge, the original Irish language. In Canada, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network offers dozens of programs, including Mohawk Girls, the indigenous answer to Sex and the City, and The Other Side, a paranormal investigation series. And in New Zealand, Ngā Pirihimana Hou follows Māori recruits as they train to become police officers. Māori television features a range of programs, from news and current affairs to performances of Romeo and Juliet in Te Reo, the Māori language.

“In the broader American media landscape you just don’t hear about those Native American voices,” said McCue. “I guess part of it has to do with the fact that America doesn’t want to struggle with its difficult history, and when you start having vibrant voices, then you’ve got to deal with this really complicated history that Americans don’t want to face up to.” 

For Aboriginal people in the United States, that means carving out digital spaces or harnessing old-fashioned technologies like radio to fill the void. Around the country, more than 40 tribal radio stations are currently on air, half of which broadcast in their own indigenous languages. At the same time, hundreds of newspapers and online outlets produce hyper-local content, from the Potawatomi Traveling Times in Wisconsin to larger national outfits like Native American Times.

“Community-generated indigenous media has a very strong impact on the health and well-being of not only languages but on the life and health of indigenous communities,” said John Schertow of the Center for World Indigenous Studies. “It provides communities with an easily accessible channel to disseminate culturally appropriate information, which helps maintain cohesion, but it also helps to ensure that communities can remain responsive to new challenges, threats, and opportunities that arise, which is something that mainstream mass media can’t generally provide.”

Runningen of NRK Sápmi holds the Binnabánnaš puppet.

In other words, supporting indigenous media, and its potential to reach larger audiences, could increase the likelihood that languages will survive. Still, American media outlets remain primarily Indian-free zones, and that means encouragement for indigenous languages is lacking a big piece of support.

“I don’t want to say that the future is rosy; I think the trend all the way is toward homogenization, and I often feel that people who try to champion endangered languages are fighting a losing battle,” said Moseley. “But there are plenty of reasons for hope in individual cases. As long as there are people to care about their own linguistic heritage, then you can’t give up hope, can you?”

At NRK Sápmi’s studio, Runningen took an admiring look at Binnabánnaš, then wrapped him in plastic. With the show still some months off, the puppet would return to storage until a little television magic could bring him to life.

Binnabánnaš’ job will be to show that Sámi culture is thriving.

“It’ll be really exciting when the set comes in in a couple of weeks because then the world will start forming,” said Runningen.

When Binnabánnaš and Ujujju hit the air this fall, they’ll be in stiff competition with children’s programming from around Norway and the world, but Runningen says NRK Sápmi isn’t too worried: Binnabánnaš’ job will be to show that Sámi culture is thriving, while preparing the next generation for how to be indigenous in the 21st century.

“Hopefully [non-Sámi] kids will grow up with the idea that the Sámi aren’t another people that are different,” said Runningen.