February 05, 2021
On February 2, 1887 Congress passed a law to prohibit the use of Indian languages in schools. It was not until a century later that President George Bush signed the Native American Languages Act on October 30, 1990. In passing the act Congress declared it was the responsibility of the US “to act together with Native Americans to ensure the survival of these unique cultures and languages.” The act went on to declare it was their right to use Native American languages “as a medium of instruction in all schools funded by the Secretary of the Interior.” The act also stated this right “shall not be restricted in any public proceeding, including publicly supported education programs.”
I have infamously claimed to have failed to learn more languages than most even try. In undergraduate school I tried to learn German (my ancestry) but gave up after failing 101 twice (hence, my BS). My MA demanded a language. I tried Hebrew (Ancient and Modern), took a course in Coptic, Syriac, and Nabatean, tried to become self-taught in Arabic, and finally again tried German, all to no avail. For another MA I was finally able to pass Spanish 103, but only by the grace of the Graduate Assistant who let me slide by on “attendance.” My final degree attempt brought Koine Greek (Biblical) and later French. I have since tried to learn Italian. I am not fluent in any of these eleven languages.
Indigenous languages in Indian education have a long history in the US. Reverend John Eliot preached to the Massachusett Indians in their own tongue in 1646 and got the New Testament published in the language in 1683. In the early Nineteenth Century, a Northeast mission school only used books written in the Chippewan language. When the missionaries later switched to English the quality of education declined. This was also true during the 1830’s among the Sioux. It was not that the students lacked the ability to learn English, it was their unwillingness. Another difficulty the English instructors found was that Native languages did not have words for many of the European concepts being taught. By the 1880’s the federal government was running the schools and assimilation was the goal. Not only were the youth taken from their families and placed in boarding schools, but they were also conspicuously stripped of anything representing their culture.
Thoughts: One of the reasons I struggle with language is the system used to teach me English. Mine was the “test” class, and the system was abandoned during High School because it was shown that we all lacked the basic skills of grammar. When learning another language, I was always taught referring to the grammatical forms I never knew. Another reason I struggled was due to the heavy reliance on rote memorization. Like the Sioux children above I was unwilling to be told. Language is an integral part of any culture. It reflects how society functions and our understanding of the world. When we learn a new language, it forces us to look at the world in new ways. The language we use will either bind us closely to our community or separate us from it. Either requires a conscious choice. We need to pay attention to health. We need to follow the science. We need to do the work. Change is coming and it starts with you.