This letter features reporting from The Race To Extract an Indigenous Language From Its Last Lucid Speaker by Simeon Tegel  and Florence Goupil

Dear Senator Thom Tillis,

I am writing to inform you that we are facing a worldwide crisis. I recently read the Pulitzer Center article “The Race To Extract an Indigenous Language From Its Last Lucid Speaker” by Simeon Tegel and Florence Goupil. Did you know that by 2100, up to 95% of all languages spoken today may be eradicated? To you, this may seem far off, but babies born today will only be 77 by the time thousands of languages are gone. It is estimated that only 20 of the approximately 167 Native languages spoken in the U.S. today will remain in 2050. As you read this letter, cultures, traditions, and knowledge are dying in your hands.

A large portion of neuroscience is rooted in understanding language. Roberto Zariquiey—a postdoctoral researcher trying to preserve Iskonawa, an Indigenous language—states, “What’s messed up is that most of the claims about human cognition, the psychology of Homo sapiens, are based on a very homogenous sample of human beings.” Essentially, common thought on the limits of language and the human mind is taken from languages with the same common ancestor. With the mass extinction of languages and westernization of the world, we lose any hope of understanding things beyond our own scope. I studied a book titled Peoples of the World; Cultures in Crisis by Wade Davis, which says that “[a]ll of human potential might be reduced to a single modality, a blandly amorphous generic culture, a monochromatic world of monotony” because of the loss of languages. Is this truly the world you want?

The application of Indigenous knowledge in lots of areas is instrumental, such as controlled burns to prevent forest fires; Indigenous peoples have been doing that for many hundreds of years. There is a tree frog in the Amazon that has amazing medical potential, perhaps to deliver medication to the brain, and get through the brain blood barrier. In fact, big pharmacy remedies are often taken from natural things, distilled and compressed, such as snake venom; things all known by Indigenous peoples. Indigenous knowledge is important, and by destroying these cultures we lose heritage, wisdom, and people’s lives. The Pulitzer article I read quoted Mark Plotkin from the nonprofit Amazon Conservation Team saying, “You can’t pick apart a culture and say, ‘Okay, we want to save knowledge of the medicinal plants but we don’t care about the rest.’” Dr. Jill Biden has said, “I always believed that language is not just a collection of words. It helps us tell the story of our culture and our traditions, containing the wisdom of the world that only we know. It’s a thread weaving through our past, present and future. The ability to speak our own truth in our own words is power.” This is why language preservation is important, we cannot allow all these people and their cultures to continue to die.

There is progress being made in North Carolina with support of the Cherokee language programs. Recently, President Biden signed a bill that would support the Cherokee language schools and offer money, supplies, and a survey every five years to make sure all needs are met. This is a huge stride as far as language preservation, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) give grants to people like Dr. Zariquiey and his team to help preserve languages, though the acceptance rates are alarmingly low.

Massive as this is, it is not enough to stop the cascade of language loss that is engulfing our state, country, and world. We need to offer more grant funding to research and preserve languages. This research leads to solutions proven to preserve the languages, such as Dr. Zaiquiey’s language apps, recordings, and grammar books. Iskonawa will probably never be a true “mother tongue,” but there are languages that can be.

I believe that you have power as a senator to make real change in this issue and urge you to advocate for global preservation of language, and force the nation to take a stand. I’m not a politician, and I don’t pretend to be. I am a thirteen year-old boy from North Carolina who doesn’t want to grow up in a world where everyone's forced to be the same.


Ethan Fizette

Ethan Fizette is an 8th grade student and lives in western North Carolina. He is an aspiring author and avid reader. In his free time he loves to build Legos and play video games. He also enjoys the outdoors and spending time with his family. He hopes to one day become a meteorologist.

Read more winning entries from the 2023 Local Letters for Global Change contest!