This field-based study examines English features in Native American and Canadian First Nations communities. Many younger speakers in these communities have limited access to their heritage languages, so English has taken on an important role in the construction of Native ethnic identity. The current English dominance in these communities came about through forced cultural and linguistic assimilation, but now many speakers are creatively using that ‘foreign’ language (English) in distinctively Native ways. Prior work has made valuable progress examining English features in particular tribes and regions, typically focusing on grammatical features (Leap 1993). Our study takes a wider view by sampling 75 people in three disparate locations across the continent (Standing Rock Sioux Reservation; Northwest Territories, Canada; and diverse tribes represented at Dartmouth College), and by including prosodic features in the analysis. The fieldwork was conducted by Native community members (two of our co-authors), and the recordings include one-on-one interviews as well as casual small group settings. We analyzed the recordings with acoustic phonetic methods as well as discourse analysis.
While many tribes have their own distinctive sets of English features associated with local regional dialects, our results suggest that certain prosodic features are shared across much larger distances, especially pitch and timing. We find that many Native people are constructing a shared sense of Native ethnic identity through this set of English prosodic features. In other words, these prosodic features have become enregistered (Agha 2003), and speakers apply them with different orders of indexicality (Silverstein 2003), including playful teasing and other contexts of ethnic solidarity. In this respect, these modern Native speakers are resiliently and creatively using English to construct their own ethnic identity. Understanding this large-scale sociolinguistic trend is valuable for cross-cultural communication and educational contexts.