Language, Culture, & Self-esteem

Printed with permission from the Native Language Community Coordination Training and Technical Assistance Center, which is a resource of the Administration for Native Americans. Contribution by Cree Whelshula, NLCC TTA Director

High levels of self-esteem are associated with higher levels of gray matter (brain cell density) in the hippocampus (the learning, memory, and emotion center of the brain), as well as increased physical health (Lu, 2018). On the other hand, low levels of self-esteem are closely tied to “…feelings of depression, hopelessness, and suicidal tendencies” (Overholser, 1995). Considering the high rates of mental health and physical health issues in native communities, creating an environment for our children in their most formative years to build a resilient self-esteem is of utmost importance.

Language and culture can come into play in very subtle ways. The inclusion, or lack thereof, in public schools sends a message to indigenous youth on whether there is value to who they are as indigenous people. Public schools are supposed to educate children in the foundational knowledge it takes to be a successful in life. When a language and culture are not present in this “foundational education system” it gets perceived subconsciously that the home language and culture is inferior. It perpetuates the idea born from the boarding school era that indigenous ways of being, knowing, and speaking are not important in being successful in life; or even a hinderance. “The use of the heritage language as the medium of instruction… is a clear affirmation of the value and status of the heritage language and of those who speak it” (Bougie, 2003, as cited in Morcom, 2017). Children who are educated with strong language and cultural experiences are shown that there is value and importance of their ancestry, and as result, themselves.

In many indigenous cultures, even tiny children have their responsibilities. An Elder once told me that children are taught early on to take care of Elders, and the Elders’ job was to praise the children and build them up. For example, if a child was to get a cup of water for an Elder, it was that Elder’s job to tell the child it was the sweetest most delicious cup of water they ever had. This sends the message to the child that they have something worth giving, and that others value their contributions.

Lastly, language and cultural knowledge gives a child pride in the resilience of their ancestry, and pride in their own contributions to language and cultural maintenance/revitalization. Our children are starving for a sense of self-worth, and in assigning worth to their lineage, they inherit that worth for themselves. Language and culture are not an elective course, it is a basic need just as food, shelter, and family are.


Lu, H., Li, X., Wang, Y., Song, Y. & Liu, J. (2018, Nov. 20) The Hippocampus Underlies the Association between Self-Esteem and Physical Health. Scientific Reports. Nature Publishing Group.

Overholser, J.C., Adams, D.M., Lehnert, K.L., & Brinkman, D.C. (1995, July) Self-Esteem Deficits and Suicidal Tendencies among Adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 34(7), 919-928. U.S. National Library of Medicine,

Morcom, L.A. (2017) Self-esteem and Cultural Identity in Aboriginal Language Immersion Kindergarteners, Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 16(6), 365-380. DOI: 10.1080/15348458.2017.1366271.