Research shows that ethnic
identity is shaped not only by the loss and revitalization
of mother tongues but also by the remixing of English.
Illustration by Jennifer Luxton.
An emerging field of research suggests that much like Cajun
English or African American Vernacular English otherwise
known as Ebonics unique speech patterns also have developed
among indigenous people in Canada and the United States, creating
Native American English, or "the rez accent."
|Indigenous people are creating
and maintaining their own ethnic identities.
Here's what else researchers have discovered: The rez accent
short for "reservation accent" occurs in indigenous
communities regardless of whether a heritage language is spoken;
and that through English, indigenous people are creating and maintaining
their own ethnic identities.
In other words, the use of English could be just as important
to indigenous identity as mother-tongue languages.
Kalina Newmark is a Tulita Dene First Nation member and co-author
of the study, "'The rez accent knows no borders': Native American
ethnic identity expressed through English prosody," which appeared
in the journal Language in Society last fall.
"I don't speak Slavey or my heritage language, and I think there's
a large portion of Native people who don't, so how do you reconcile
your identity with not being able to speak your indigenous language?"
Newmark says. "As Native people, we're survivors, so it's kind of
cool to look at how we've adapted English to really suit our needs."
|Where the accent comes from
is still a mystery.
In indigenous communities, the rez accent isn't exactly new.
YouTube star Auntie
Beatrice (pronounced beechress), played by Lakota-Hidatsa comedian
Tonia Jo Hall, regularly employs a particularly unique version of
the accent for jokes and monologues aimed squarely at Native viewers,
while other indigenous comics from the United States and Canada
have embraced Native American English for years. Perhaps the best-known
example of the rez accent comes from Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a character
from the 1998 film Smoke Signals. In The
Washington Post's write-up of the movie, the reviewer described
Builds -the-Fire as a bit of a nerd, but "when the born storyteller
squeezes his eyes shut and spins a tale in his 'reservation accent'
that makes him sound like an aboriginal Emo Phillips, you know that
his roots are planted in ancient soil."
Thomas Builds-the-Fire's accent is meant to be a little exaggerated,
but it makes Native viewers instantly aware that he's part of the
Where the accent comes from is still a mystery. To many indigenous
people who speak English as a second language, the intonation and
patterns of heritage languages offer some clues to the accent's
origins; however, it's only one clue. Another may lie in the boarding
or residential school experience.
|In the government's attempt
to eradicate indigenous languages, children were forced to learn
"It's always one of the questions that gets asked," says Nacole
Walker, another of the study's authors and member of the Standing
Rock Sioux tribe. "We talked about the Relocation Act and the amount
of intertribal mixing that's been happening since the boarding school
days. Those were the first times when there was a large amount of
Native American students coming together from different parts of
In the 19th and 20th centuries, tens of thousands of Native
children in the United States and Canada were taken from their families
and mixed together in boarding schools to be assimilated into white
culture. In the federal government's attempt to eradicate indigenous
languages, children were forced to learn English.
Researchers hypothesize that the experience may have given rise
to a "standardized" rez accent among ESL learners, which was later
carried home to tribal communities. In the mid-1900s, many Native
people moved from their reservations to cities some
by force, others by necessity where new, intertribal communities
sprung up, perhaps further reinforcing the accent.
|"There are some who push that
rez accent to reaffirm their identity or to let others know
that they're Native."
The United Nations estimates that of the nearly 200 indigenous
languages still spoken in North America, less than 40 percent are
used by young adults or children. Researchers point out that Native
identity is being shaped not only by the loss and revitalization
of heritage languages, but also by the repurposing and remixing
"There are people who don't have any of the Native accent. Then
there's someone who kind of speaks in different environments with
the Native accent they're someone who code switches," Newmark
says. "Then there are some who push that rez accent to reaffirm
their identity or to let others know that they're Native. I would
hope that they wouldn't try and force it, but I think some people
The accent isn't without its baggage, though.
|"People assume that we're unintelligent
because we don't speak perfect, standard English."
"The minute you have any individual or group or subgroup of
a population speaking a little bit differently than what is the
perceived standard, then you have all kinds of negative, adverse
evaluations of those people or those groups," says Sali Tagliamonte,
a linguistics professor at the University of Toronto. "It doesn't
matter where we go: In England, the Southern accents are good and
the Northern accents are bad. In the United States, the Southern
accents are bad and the Northern accents are good, and this type
of thing goes on all the time."
The study's authors conducted their research while attending
Dartmouth College, interviewing and recording 75 Native people on
the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, in Canada's Northwest Territories,
and at Dartmouth.
One of the study's participants, a Lumbee tribal member, recalled
consciously trying to lose his accent as a child because he thought
it made him sound dumb, while a Navajo citizen who participated
in the research reported working, for the same reason, to mimic
a "standard" form of English while in class. Another interviewee
reported being forced to take ESL classes in primary school even
though English was their first language."
|"Non-Natives need to understand
that it has nothing to do with our intelligence."
"You have to think about the psychology that goes into that
is pretty profound," Newmark says. "Not many other communities have
to go through that where they say, OK, if I speak this way, will
I be interpreted as a dumb person?"
Many of the people who agreed to participate in the study reported
switching back and forth between standard and Native American English
depending on the setting and the company they kept. In casual settings
with other Native people, some participants said that the "rez comes
out." However, some speakers said they noticed that their speech
patterns shifted to a
more standard form of English in a class setting. Still, others
noted a complete change in how they spoke at home in their tribal
communities versus when they returned to college.
"People assume that we're unintelligent because we don't speak
perfect, standard English," Walker says. "Non-Natives need to understand
that it has nothing to do with our intelligence."
The essential lesson of Newmark and Walker's research: When
nonNatives understand and recognize that the rez accent exists,
then indigenous people may have a better shot at advocating for
But Newmark and Walker say more investigation is needed. Although
decades of research and awareness have informed the
understanding of African American Vernacular English, Chicano English,
and other dialects, this study on Native American English is believed
to be the only one of its kind.
"Our research is really saying that the way Native people speak
is completely fine and that it's logical and orderly," Newmark says.
"When we understand that the way we speak is perfectly fine, then
it's much easier to be heard."
Updated March 7, 2017 to clarify that an individual being forced
to take ESL classes was not at Dartmouth, but in their primary school.
Tristan Ahtone is a journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe