Honoring Native Languages, Defeating the Shame

Feb 15th, 2000 | By | Category: 11-3: Native Language, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Singing for the Music and Dance of the Crow Indian class are (left to right) Kenneth Pretty on Top, Jr.; Henry "Sarge" Old Horn; Dr. Barney Old Coyote; and Robert "Corky" Old Horn. Photo by Kyle Brehm

E lohe mai ia makou, I ka ÿolelo kupa o ka ÿaina…. (Hear us as we speak the Native language of the land.) Na makou, na pua lei o Hawaiÿi…. (This is what we are doing, little children who are like the flowers of Hawaii’s lei garlands.)

The children’s faces warmed the room as they sang, embraced in their parents’ and teachers’ arms. Their song was part of a language workshop at the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education in Hilo, Hawaii, which many tribal college representatives attended in 1999. The children’s immersion school in Hilo is taught entirely in Hawaiian until the fifth grade, when English is introduced an hour a day. Listening to their voices, one felt they could accomplish anything, and standardized tests have proven that indeed they can; immersion school students equaled their peers in most areas and received even higher scores in mathematics. They were proud to be Hawaiian. Their pride and their potential filled the room like tropical sunshine.

Across the nation, many Native communities are striving to restore and preserve their languages, and tribal colleges and universities are leading these efforts in their communities. For some of the tribal colleges, the success of the Hawaiian language restoration has been an important model. Through their efforts, language advocates hope to also improve academic performance, family and community interactions, and even physical health.

Many forces have colluded to weaken and destroy Native languages, but the most effective has been humiliation. The U.S. government forbade use of “barbarous dialects” in the schools in the late 1800s, and education continued to be a tool of assimilation for many decades. Language advocates encounter the scars of such policies in their communities constantly today. Albert White Hat’s older sister opposed his participation in cultural activities on the Rosebud Reservation, saying, “Dancing will send you to hell!” Kenneth Ryan visited a cousin on the Fort Peck Reservation who ranted and raved against his language work. Later, she tearfully explained that as a child, she had been caned for using the Assiniboine language, and she wanted to protect him. Lakota language advocate Cecilia Fire Thunder uses healing ceremonies to free the tongues of people too ashamed to “remember” their Native language. In many cases, these feelings toward the language have led to hating their own skin color.

When the schools punished students for using their Native languages, they also created a deep distrust of education, which persists today in many communities. Doris Leader Charge, who has taught the Lakota language and culture at Sinte Gleska University in South Dakota for 27 years, once felt this way. As a girl, she was punished at school when she tried to help the younger, Lakota-speaking students understand the teacher’s instructions. “I thought that was what education was—punishment,” she said.

Offering a safe place

How do the colleges fight the shame? How do they create an atmosphere where children and adults want to converse in their Native language? The tribal colleges utilize various approaches, as described in this issue. The successful programs all share a common characteristic with the immersion schools in Hawaii: They offer a safe place where children and adults are honored for using the Native language, not shamed.

This is not easy in the United States where the airwaves constantly bombard us with English. When northern Europeans turn on their television sets, they hear programs in Danish, Swedish, German, and English on different channels. Young and old understand the importance of knowing several languages there. In the United States a century ago, tribal statesmen often spoke three or more different languages, including Spanish or English. However, English has always been the language of power in this country. Language knowledge is no longer honored; many mainstream public schools have stopped requiring any foreign languages. Anyone in the world who does not know English is considered ignorant by many Americans.

During World War II, the United States military recognized the value of diversity. We utilized soldiers who spoke Navajo, Lakota, or Comanche, and the German and Japanese intelligence forces were not able to break their code. At the same time that R.C. Gorman (the Navajo artist) was being punished for speaking Navajo at school, his father, Carl Gorman, was serving as a Navajo codetalker in the Marines.

Knowing diverse languages is important to the country, to the tribes, and to the individuals. Without the language, ceremonies cannot continue; children cannot communicate with their grandparents; and adults cannot voice their prayers. Some attribute their tribes’ social disintegration to the loss of their language and culture. “Our moral imperatives are in the language,” said Alan Caldwell, director of the College of the Menominee Nation Culture Institute in Wisconsin. On the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, teachers at the Head Start have noticed that children with behavioral problems have been transformed by their experiences in immersion school. By connecting them with their language, the Head Start instructors link the children with their traditional values. The Winnebago Tribal Diabetes Project Director believes that Little Priest Tribal College’s language classes help improve physical and mental health.

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