American Indian

American Indian languages

Languages spoken by the original inhabitants of the Americas and the West Indies and by their modern descendants. They display an extraordinary structural range, and no attempt to unite them into a small number of genetic groupings has won general acceptance. Before the arrival of Columbus, more than 300 distinct languages were spoken in North America north of Mexico by an estimated population of two to seven million. Today fewer than 170 languages are spoken, of which the great majority are spoken fluently only by older adults. A few widespread language families (Algonquian, Iroquoian, Siouan, Muskogean, Athabaskan, Uto-Aztecan, Salishan) account for many of the languages of eastern and interior North America, though the far west was an area of extreme diversity (see Hokan; Penutian). It is estimated that in Mexico and northern Central America (Mesoamerica), an estimated 15–20 million people spoke more than 300 languages before Columbus. The large Otomanguean and Maya families and a single language, Nahuatl, shared Mesoamerica with many smaller families and language isolates. More than 10 of these languages and language complexes still have more than 100,000 speakers. South America and the West Indies had an estimated pre-Columbian population of 10–20 million, speaking more than 500 languages. Important language families include Chibchan in Colombia and southern Central America, Quechuan and Aymaran in the Andean region, and Arawakan, Cariban, and Tupian in northern and central lowland South America. Aside from Quechuan and Aymaran, with about 10 million speakers, and the Tupian language Guaraní, most remaining South American Indian languages have very few speakers, and some face certain extinction.

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Civil rights organization founded in 1968, originally to help urban American Indians displaced by government programs. It later broadened its efforts to include demands for economic independence, autonomy over tribal areas, restoration of illegally seized lands, and protection of Indian legal rights and traditional culture. Some of its protest activities involved violence and were highly publicized (see Wounded Knee). Internal strife and the imprisonment of some leaders led to the disbanding of its national leadership in 1978, though local groups have continued to function.

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The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) was established in 1972, in order to represent the interests of the newly emerging tribal colleges. One of the most significant achievements of AIHEC was to work with the United States Congress to grant land-grant status to 29 tribal colleges. This status was conferred in October of 1994 and AIHEC was granted a representative to the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges's Council of Presidents.

AIHEC's membership is 36 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) in the United States and one Canadian institution. It is jointly governed by the presidents from the member institutions. AIHEC offers technical assistance to its member colleges, as well as to developing institutions, and leads efforts to further the Tribal College Movement.


The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), since 1972, has been the collective spirit and voice of our nation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities, advocating on behalf of individual institutions of higher education that are defined and controlled by their respective tribal nations. AIHEC’s mission is to nurture, advocate, and protect American Indian history, culture, art and language, and the legal and human rights of American Indian people to their own sense of identity and heritage through:

1) assisting Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) in maintaining standards of high quality education, developing an accrediting body for American Indian-serving post-secondary institutions, and reaching out to other national education organizations;

2) promoting and advocating for the development of new TCUs;

3) promoting policy, legislation, regulations at the national level to strengthen American Indian higher education and advocating for TCUs in Congress and with the federal government;

4) providing technical assistance to member institutions; and

5) promoting public and private opportunities for TCUs in areas critical to success in the 21st century, including science and information technology, agriculture and natural resources use, pre-K through 12 linkages, international outreach, and leadership development.

AIHEC's four primary strategic goals are:

  • Sustainability.. Sustain Tribal Colleges and Universities and the Tribal College Movement.
  • Performance Accountability. Provide technical assistance, standards, and processes necessary for TCUs to be accountable premier higher education centers within their communities.
  • Student Engagement. Help improve the capacity of TCUs to provide high quality, culturally relevant, and integrated higher education.
  • Strengthening Communities. Assist TCUs in improving their capacity to serve their students, individuals, families, and extendted families.

In the late 1970's, AIHEC established the American Indian College Fund (AICF) to raise scholarship funds for American Indian students at qualified tribal colleges and universities.


  • American Indian Higher Education Association (AIHEC) and the Institute for Higher Education Policy (1999). Tribal Colleges: An Introduction. Washington, DC: Authors.

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