Native American Languages

November is National Native American Heritage Month, and the Edison Department of Special Collections has numerous books to help us celebrate! Today, we will be featuring four books from our collection that are written in or contain some description of Native American languages. Many of these languages still survive today, although they have suffered from the United States federal government’s attempts to wipe them out in the late 19th/ early twentieth century through forced assimilation programs.

A map of Native American Reservations in the United States in 1882, a foldout from W.P. Clark’s Indian Sign Language.

The First Bible Printed in America

The oldest book fragment in a Native American language from our Special Collections holdings is a page from a Bible that was translated into an Algonquian language by John Eliot in 1663. This page is from Matthew 26, when Judas plans to betray Jesus. It was produced in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and was the very first full Bible printed in the Americas. Eliot, a preacher in Boston, translated the Bible into a phoneticization of the Algonquian language, which was solely an oral language at the time. The Bible represents an early effort by white settlers to convert the native people of Massachusetts to Christianity.

A page from the first Bible printed in the American colonies, featuring a phoneticization of the Algonquian language, 1663.

Algonquian Dictionary

At the time of first European contact, there were over 300 native languages spoken throughout North America. In the New England region where many settlers first set up colonies, the most common languages came from the Algonquian family. The pages below features a page from a short dictionary of the Algonquian language from New Voyages to North-America, published in 1735 and written by the Lord Lieutenant of the French colony in new England. This glossary comes at the end of his two volumes on the indigenous people of the area and frequently refers to them as “savages.” Much of the early writings on indigenous populations are unfortunately mediated by European colonizers in this way, but the book does at least provide a glimpse at the language they spoke when the settlers arrived. Many Algonquian languages and dialects are still spoken by indigenous people in both the United States and Canada.

A page from an appendix of New Voyages to North-America, showing a short dictionary of the Algonquin language, 1735

Ohahta Na-Holhtina, or Choctaw Arithmetic

The book pictured below is Ohahta Na-Holhtina, an arithmetic book published in the Choctaw language in 1845. The Choctaw, who originally inhabited the Southeastern United States, developed this written language using Roman letters in the early nineteenth century. The Choctaw were largely friendly to European settlers and entered into numerous treaties with the United States once it separated from England, but they were ultimately the first tribe to be forcibly resettled through the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Today, Choctaw tribes exist in Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The Choctaw language is still spoken today and is an important part of Choctaw culture.

A page from Ohahta Na-Holhtina, a book of arithmetic in the Choctaw language, 1845.

Indian Sign Language

Before the forced assimilation programs of the late nineteenth century, many Native American tribes used sign language in addition to verbal languages. Unlike American Sign Language, which is used almost exclusively by deaf individuals, Native American Sign Language, also known as Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) was and is used by both the deaf and hearing, particularly for communication between tribes with different vocal languages. In the page below, which comes from a dictionary of sign-language called Indian Sign Language, W.P. Clark describes the sign for “Apache” and its potential origins. Native American Sign Language is currently an endangered language, but is still used by a small number of both deaf and hearing Native Americans from various Plains tribes.

A page from Indian Sign Language explaining the sign for “Apache,” and its origins, 1885.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.