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Just a few hundred of these giants survive along the coasts of North America, but their numbers are growing in southern seas. They dive 600 feet, brushing their heads along the seafloor with raised, wartlike patches of skin, sometimes swimming upside down, big as sunken galleons, hot-blooded and holding their breath in cold and utter darkness while the greatest tides on Earth surge by.
Science calls these animals Eubalaena glacialis, "good, or true, whale of the ice." Heavy irony is embedded in the common name, right whale, given by whalers who declared them the right whales to kill. By the time New Englanders got into the right-whale-killing business, they were chasing leftovers. Native American Heritage Month (November) is when we reflect on the heritage of the first people in the Americas and honor their traditions and ancestors.
North America before the time of contact with Europeans five hundred years ago was a mosaic of extraordinary human diversity. Tribal policeman Jim Macy dances to keep his traditions alive, Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Oregon (undated). But there has been a resilience among the first people of North America in the 21st Century, and many of them have been determined to hang on to their heritage.
Under the Enduring Voices Project, linguists journey to meet with last speakers, listen to their stories, and document their languages with film, pictures, and audio to help communities preserve their knowledge of species, landscapes, and traditions before they vanish, according to the project’s Web site. Documenting a disappearing language is so important, but it’s possible only to really begin to appreciate all the subtleties and complexities of language if you have some speakers left to give you the dynamics and social context.
From a scientific perspective it is also imperative to document languages while they are still alive.
For scientists, who knows what benefits there will be down the line that we don’t even know about now yet. The idea is to create areas where efforts need to be concentrated, where the number and different types of languages have consequences that are greater collectively for humanity. Each language is of course equally valued, but we have a finite number of people, dollars, and time to do this work, so we need to maximize our efforts and resources. At the time Lewis and Clark arrived in what’s now Oregon 200 years ago there were 14 language families, more than in all of Europe combined. There is only one language family that has more than a hundred or two hundred speakers, and that’s Northern Paiute, in southeastern Oregon, where the elders can still speak it when they get together. With the loss of the languages, all kinds of wonderful things that the speakers did with their languages have also vanished, for example, some of the greatest works of oral literature ever produced–the multilingual performances with different characters speaking different languages that was found in the Pacific Northwest. Large amounts of local knowledge about fauna and flora, ecosystem management, local place names, spiritual values, and so on are all submerged, altered or gone because the original languages that expressed these concepts are gone or no longer well understood. Through Enduring Voices, we have been helping the Winnemem Wintu, one of the indigenous peoples of north central California.
Winnemem Wintu representatives are going to take part in an Enduring Voices workshop in Santa Fe next April. Children wear headdresses and beaded buckskin to perform dance, Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Oregon, 1969.
The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, a casino-funded tribe, has resources and the will to support language regeneration programs, and have successfully generated new speakers of Chinuk Wawa, the lingua franca of many Oregon reservations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If you have five speakers of a language and you start immersion schools you can produce 25 speakers. There is also the concept that you don’t have to be tied to one language, or worse, be forced to learn one over another. We will work with any North American community, no matter what the size or the state of their language (unless it has no speakers and was never recorded of course), to see what kinds of solutions might be possible. National Geographic VoicesResearchers, conservationists, and others around the world share stories and commentary on the National Geographic Society's conversation platform Voices.

Society Field Inspection 2016: Gulf of CaliforniaDescribed by Jacques Cousteau as the "aquarium of the world," the Gulf of California in Mexico is threatened by coastal development, climate change, and other human activities. Support National GeographicWe've supported more than 11,000 grants to scientists and others in the field.Learn more about our work. Two years after being discovered deep in a South African cave, the 1,500 fossils excavated during the Rising Star Expedition have been identified as belonging to a previously unknown early human relative that National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger and team have named Homo naledi. With at least 15 individuals of all ages and both sexes represented, the find adds an unprecedented amount of information to our understanding of early human evolution in Africa.
In addition, the absence of any other animal remains or large debris in the fossil chamber strongly suggests that these non-human beings intentionally deposited their dead within this cave.
Favoring shallow coastal waters, they passed close to ports, swam slowly, and often lingered on the surface. The Yankees hunted down another 5,000 or so, partly because whales became even more prized for their baleen than for oil. Hundreds of tribes had their own cultures, political systems, art forms, spiritual beliefs–and languages.
Others are looking for ways to revitalize traditional cultures, spiritual values–and languages. By using appropriate written materials, video, still photography, audio recorders, and computers with language software, as well as access through the Internet where possible, the Enduring Voices Project will help empower communities to preserve ancient traditions with modern technology,” the Web site adds. California might have the claim, but it is much larger, so the award for density of linguistic diversity goes to Oregon. Today only five families of languages exist, and most of them have only a handful of speakers.
The complexity of the setting of these texts, and the sounds of the languages have often been lost. We have tried to do a little through the Enduring Voices program, which has been quite effective at raising public awareness about the issue of language endangement. We have given them a technology kit and are providing training to help them compile video and audio recordings, with the purpose of producing language revitalization materials for their language. They will be joined by representatives of the Sac and Fox tribes, who are also interested in maintaining their Sauk language. It can be informal, such as by producing a reader, or formal, such as a course taught in schools.
We have been working with the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians in Oregon and helping them build a talking dictionary. When you are down to only a few speakers you can find ways to build speaker communities, such as happened successfully in Hawaii, where they have created new speakers. The Cherokee in Oklahoma have shown great success in generating new speakers with their immersion school. If they are placed in a language immersion situation where everyone is speaking the language they will become fluent.
Sure there are vanishing languages around the globe, but your neighbors might be speakers of one of them.
We lose part of the human genius, and with the disappearance of a language also goes a lot of spiritual concepts, art, and so on. Interested community activists are welcome to contact Enduring Voices or Living Tongues to start the discussion. I want to thank National Geographic and LIving Tongues for continuing to draw attention to this dire situation.
It makes me sad to know their communities have been destroyed over the years (I would have said disappeared, but there’s anger in this thought).

Posters and commenters are required to observe National Geographic's community rules and other terms of service. To learn firsthand what's going on in and around this marine treasure of global importance, the National Geographic Society sent its top scientists and officials to the region in January 2016. This is one way North Atlantic right whales feed in the Bay of Fundy between Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Such traits made them easy to harpoon, and they tended to conveniently float after they died, thanks to their exceptionally thick blubber layer, which whalers rendered into oil. Hundreds of strips of this tough yet flexible material, each six to nine feet long and finely fringed, drape from the upper jaw. Many of their children were taken to boarding schools where they were required to speak only in English as part of a program to assimilate Native Americans into the white culture. The few remaining Native American languages still in use were increasingly spoken only by the elders. Linguists will tell you that every language furthers and refines our understanding of cognition, communications systems, the nature of the mind and the different ways people categorize our collective human experience.
There are very few languages that have decent prospects of surviving without significant effort on the part of their communities to continue to find a use for them. A longer-term arrangement is through Living Tongues, where we plan and execute larger scale projects. This is really the only way that languages will survive into the future, if activists in the communities are interested in maintaining their language. The Cherokee can be thinking of thousands and tens of thousands of speakers of their language on this basis ultimately. They are also perfectly capable of finding the information through the media and public information sources, and through word of mouth, if they want to do something about preserving their language.
We have to do something to save this culture because money and power isn’t everything. I think it’s great organizations work on preserving their languages but I wished we could do so much more and give them back what was stolen from them. They toured the desert islands off the southeastern coast of the Baja Peninsula and they listened to presentations by more than a dozen experts, including several whose Baja California research is funded by the Society.
Or so the experts suspect, having watched the 40- to 80-ton animals surface with mud on their crowns. They form a colossal sieve that allows the giants to strain tiny crustaceans from the water for food—a billion flea-size copepods a day to supply the minimum 400,000 calories an adult whale needs (the ratio of a whale's body mass to its prey's is 50 billion to one). These are the main ways we engage the communities and help them to document and revitalize their languages. Society, however, thought baleen was best used for corset stays, stiffeners in fashionable gowns, umbrella ribs, and (consider: "I'm going to whale on you!") horsewhips. By the 16th century Europeans had exhausted the eastern North Atlantic population and turned to North America's coast. There whalers set up stations in Labrador and took 25,000 to 40,000 related bowhead whales along with an unknown number of rights (records seldom distinguished between these two similar looking titans).

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