Early Native American Languages and Stories
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Native American Languages

ivory carving of a fish
Inuit carving of a fish

November 2016 - The languages Native American people spoke (and still speak) in North America fall into several groups. The Cherokee and the Iroquois, on the East Coast, spoke Iroquoian languages. In the midwest, the Sioux, the Crow, and the Mandan spoke related languages. In the Pacific Northwest, the Chinook and the Nez Perce shared a language group. In the Southwest, the Shoshone, the Ute and Pueblo people spoke languages related to Central American Aztec.

Another large group, who probably arrived in North America later than the Iroquoians, spoke Algonquinian languages: the Blackfoot, the Navajo, the Apache, the Cree, the Cheyenne, the Algonquin, the Shawnee. Further north, in Alaska, the Inuit were relatively recent arrivals, who spoke a language unrelated to these others.

It's not impossible that some people in North America knew how to write before 1500 AD. Some Cherokee people tell stories about an early way of writing, for instance. But there is no evidence from before 1500 of any writing in North America. There's nothing that looks like paper, and nothing with writing on it. If people were writing at this time, the evidence has all rotted away or people have hidden it. So they can't have been writing very much, or there would be stone inscriptions and things that would have lasted, as there are for the Aztec, the Inca, and the Maya in Central and South America.

Most Native kids learned stories by hearing them told out loud. These stories were usually about religion, or about how people should act. Some of these stories were written down, much later, and you can read some of them here:

Learn by doing: learn some Lakota phrases
More about the Inuit Creation Myth
More about the Three Sisters
More about Br'er Rabbit

Bibliography and further reading about early Native American languages and stories:

American literature
More about Native Americans
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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