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Seneca Language Revitalization Through Indigenous Bilingual Road Signs

This is the abstract of a TULCON14 poster presentation.

Anna Taylor, Ohio State University

One of the fundamental types of human rights concerns collective-developmental rights  which encompass the rights of minorities to use heritage languages and practices without  external interference (Vasak 1977). This protected status is a critical part of language  revitalization in which speakers of heritage languages, faced with the encroachment of more  socially dominant languages, embark on vigorous revitalization programs to ensure the survival  and continued usage of their language. The Iroquoian language Seneca is one such language that  currently has four speech communities and a variety of language revitalization initiatives. 

To revitalize and reclaim their traditional language, community classes through the  Seneca Language Department and the Faithkeeper Language Nest School for young speakers  have concentrated their efforts on preserving Onöndowa’ga:’ Gawë:nö’ otherwise known as the  Seneca language (Bowen 2020, Murray 2015). In the public sphere, a recent push by the Seneca  Nation of Indians Department of Transportation in fulfillment of the federal Native American  Tourism and Improving Visitor Experience Act enacted in 2016 has introduced bilingual road  signs for state roads running through indigenous land in addition to many other significant  components (Figura 2016). This legislation has paved the way for more public and visible  Seneca revitalization in an area whose geographic names are strongly connected to Iroquoian  languages including Seneca. These names, applicable to both people and places, have  considerable significance to group identity as well as valuable cultural knowledge in terms of  embedded connotative meanings that showcase the inadequacy of English equivalents in  replacing heritage languages.  Through oral histories collected from a prominent Seneca Nation member and language  advocate as well as members of the New York State Department of Transportation who were  involved with the landmark legislation, this study pursues a contrastive analysis of the public use  of heritage languages and the various language revitalization efforts occurring among indigenous  and minority communities. As the COVID-19 pandemic threatens already vulnerable  populations, heritage languages that have historically been oppressed face a global language  crisis that disproportionately harms and disadvantages speakers of heritage and minority  languages (Roche 2020). While government institutions have played key roles in the oppression  and stigmatization of heritage languages like Seneca, the NATIVE Act among other legislation  has established that these oppressive powers can be wielded in support of indigenous  communities and their goals. Through this work on collective-developmental human rights and  something as seemingly mundane as the language of road signs, I aim to demonstrate how these signs have important symbolic value and represent an effort foremost by the community to  reclaim an integral piece of their culture that they should always have had the right to. 


Bowen, Ja:no’s. 2020. Onöndowa’ga:’ Gawë:nö’. classes-now-available/ 

Figura, David. Bilingual Road Signs: Growing trend on state roads crossing Indian lands.  (2016). Advance Local Media LLC. _state_roads_crossing_indian_land.html 

Murray, Ann. Reclaiming Traditional Seneca Culture. (2015). The Allegheny Front. 

Roche, Gerald. Towards a New Language of the Global Language Crisis. (2020). UNESCO. global-language-crisis/ 

Vasak, K. Human Rights: A Thirty-Year Struggle: the Sustained Efforts to give Force of law to  the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (1977). UNESCO Courier.