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The Long War of Words
For generations, Native Americans’ spoken languages have been systematically dismantled and discouraged. Now, Oklahoma tribes are marshaling their resources to save the tongues with which their ancestors prayed, joked, told stories, and defined their cultures.
By David Joshua Jennings
Published January/February 2017
How indigenous languages in Oklahoma arrived at their present state of endangerment was no accident of history but the result of centuries of targeted government policy. The biggest initial blow came in the nineteenth century, when many Indian children were removed from their families and relocated to boarding schools, where they were punished if they spoke their languages, a practice that continued well into the twentieth century.
“The schools’ purpose was to cut off the influence of families and elders so that kids wouldn’t learn their songs and stories and would stop speaking their language,” says Grounds. “Often, they would wash their mouths out with soap for speaking their language, the message being, ‘Your language is dirty, and we’re going to punish you for speaking it.’”
The strategy was effective.
“They understood they needed to go after children instead of adults, and they were given enough funding to go to every tribe, every household, and every kid,” Grounds says. “It went on for generations.” Because of the trauma of the boarding school experience, those who survived rarely passed their language to their children.
“They were afraid,” says Terrie Kinsey, language program coordinator for the Sac and Fox Nation. “A lot of people still are afraid of their language—they don’t want their kids and grandkids to go through the experiences they did. The boarding schools left enormous scars on their emotions and mental processes.”
There were other contributing factors, including the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which aimed to move Native Americans from rural areas to larger, English-speaking cities in order to find work. Another factor, particularly in Oklahoma, was the allotment system—the federal policy of dividing communally held tribal lands into individually owned private property. This spread a tribe’s members over a larger geographic area, weakening communal culture and reducing the number of opportunities to communicate with each other in their native language.
Today, cultural changes are exacerbating this legacy. English is essential to accessing jobs, education, and other opportunities, so many parents do not encourage their children to learn their heritage language, seeing the time and effort necessary to master the language as a potential hindrance to success in life. For the younger generation, the biggest disruptions often are caused by technology.
“What the boarding schools didn’t kill,” Kinsey says, “TVs, phones, iPads, and computers are trying to.”
Roy Boney Jr., manager of the Cherokee Language Program in Tahlequah, says a common cutoff point for native Cherokee speakers—few of whom are under the age of forty—coincides with the rise of television and mass media.
“Cherokee used to be the language of the home, and now it’s a rare occurrence,” he says. “From radio to TV, we need to get our language in those media to get it back in the home.”
A dominant language always will push its way into young minds through television, the Internet, and other forms of technology children are exposed to on a daily basis. Even if children speak Yuchi, how can they text their friends or tweet in anything but English?
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Get There: The Yuchi Tribe of Indians offers classes for parents and interested community members. (918) 224-7017 or yuchilanguage.org. The Sac and Fox Nation has Sauk language resources online at talksauk.com. The Cherokee Nation offers online language classes. (918) 968-0070 or cherokee.org.