Senator Daniel K. InouyeMay 15th, 2013 | By rwilson | Category: 24-4: Language Revitalization
Few lawmakers embody the spirit and history of the tribal college movement more than the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye. While his legendary military and legislative record are known and honored throughout Indian Country, it is essential to acknowledge his important commitment to protecting the free exercise of American Indian languages, religious ceremonies, cultural practices, and education. Inouye represented Hawaii in the U.S. Senate for five decades before his death on Dec. 17, 2012. He was 88.
Inouye understood even better than some tribal communities the perilous condition of Native languages. He viewed our languages as “a miner’s canary,” meaning their death signaled the eventual death of Indian nations. For some this analogy may sound melodramatic, but for Inouye, who was a student of comparative religions, Native languages were inextricably linked to the practice of Native religions. He viewed Indian nations as linguistically unique and believed the preservation of Native languages was a necessity for their continued political survival as sovereign nations. The founders of the tribal college movement share the same belief.
This viewpoint reflected Inouye the legislator more than Inouye the theologian. Inouye understood completely the rising hostility toward Indian Country in Congress. He recognized that the threat came not only from conservatives, but also from progressives who often performed Olympic caliber legislative calisthenics to dismiss the federal government from living up to its trust obligation.
Undaunted by right-wing extremism and left-wing apathy, he set out many years ago to help deliver America’s First Peoples their long-denied spiritual freedom. He joined with other lawmakers to create significant new laws, such as the Native American Languages Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the National Museum of the American Indian Act. Inouye was one of the people who helped persuade President Bill Clinton to sign executive orders protecting sacred sites and the ceremonial use of eagle feathers. These remarkable achievements provide statutory vehicles for Indian Country to stem the tide in the loss of language and the erosion of ceremonial practices.
For over four decades, Inouye deployed collegiality and diplomacy as he partnered with Indian Country to educate his congressional peers on the legitimacy and need for tribal colleges. He understood that TCUs legitimize Native languages, provide culturally based education, and instill an American Indian world view in those who attend them. Inouye believed that by establishing venues to advance the study and revitalization of Native languages and Indigenous thought, TCUs are creating a heightened form of communication both internally and with the outside world.
For Inouye, the act of laying each brick and raising each building on every tribal college campus across Indian Country signaled that Native peoples were establishing their own academic canon and assuming tribal ownership of Indian education. He often stated that Indian control over Indian education was a necessary precursor to the fullest expression of sovereignty, encouraging tribes to defend their futures by defending their role in educating tribal members.
Ever the champion of justice, Inouye pointed out that America had attempted to force American Indians into the same legal status as non-Natives, which seriously endangered Native languages, religions, and ceremonial practices. He recognized that tribal colleges provided a counterbalance to the near eradication of all things Indian within the American education system. Inouye maintained that America must make an investment in Native languages and cultural protection, which included tribal college funding, commensurate with its previous investment to destroy Native languages, religions, and cultural practices.
Today we are picking up the pieces and rebuilding our nations with many more arrows in our quiver than we would have had without this United States senator who was determined to defend the languages and spirituality of Native peoples. TCUs are continuing Inouye’s work and are at the forefront of our march towards freedom— intellectually, culturally, and spiritually.
The story of Indian Country’s tribal college movement is one of perseverance, resiliency, and steadfast commitment in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It is a story of our fathers and sons, our mothers and daughters, our grandparents, our communities, and our tribes who have worked to expand Indian control and ownership over Indian education. It is a story that cannot be told without mentioning that we once had an uncle in the United States Senate who cherished tribal colleges.
Senator Inouye was the last living and serving member of Congress who supported the genesis of the tribal college movement. As we mourn this profound loss let us take comfort in the guiding cardinal values of Sinte Gleska University whose president Lionel Bordeaux worked shoulder-toshoulder for 40 years with Senator Inouye: Woksape (Wisdom) Woohitika (Bravery) Wacantognaka (Generosity) Wowacintanka (Perseverance), Wahope Unglawa Sakapi Hecel Oyate ki Wolakota Gluha Tokatakiya Unya Pi Kte: Reinforcing our foundation for the people to go forward in the Lakota (Indian) way.
Ryan Wilson (Oglala Lakota) is the president of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages.