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Stereotype of the Month Entry
(4/10/06)


Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Kiksht Spoken Here
The Critical Importance of Learning a Useless Language

"We are the last link to the fluent languages in our tribe. When we are gone, they are no more," Edith McCloud said. "When we don't have our language no more, we'll be Indian no more."

This woman cannot speak proper English. It is a condition far too common to NW Indians, and one that dramatically limits their employment possibilities. Yet, when she said these words, she was in the process of fighting for the right of the children of her tribe to be as linguistically crippled as she.

Bill tries to save languages says the headline in the Salem Statesman Journal. This is followed by: A proposal gives Oregon Indians licenses to teach native languages before they are lost. (The languages or the Indians?) What is going on, here, is an odd admixture of political correctness vs. a public bureaucracy a bizarre situation when you think of it. Today's bureaucracies feed on political correctness the way piranhas feed on flesh. Anyway, the teacher's unions aren't thrilled by non-accredited instructors in government schools.

The languages in which these "feelings of the heart" were recently expressed (in the state legislature) include the following: Wasco, Sahaptin, Paiute, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Walla Walla. (Nez Perce, pronounced "Nay Persay," is not an Indian term. It's French.) Here's another quote from the (as of 3-18) article in the SSJ.

Speaking first in her native language, Kiksht (I am not making this up), then in English, Madeline McInturff told a panel of state senators on March 8 that only a handful of people still speak her language, but she has hope that more will learn.

Our question at Oregon Magazine is why?

While we see nothing wrong with scholars retaining the ancient tongues for research purposes, or providing textbooks and pronunciation audio tapes for those interested in their heritage, we cannot see the sense in the extension of this concept. McInturff's idea, to us, is the pinnacle of bad judgement from the standpoint of Indian education.

We will ask you a simple series of questions to illustrate the point.

What percentage of Americans of German descent even a brief three generations in their past fluently speak German? What percentage of Americans of Russian descent even a brief three generations in their past fluently speak Russian? What percentage of Americans of Irish descent even a brief three generations in their past fluently speak Gaelic? What percentage of Americans of Norwegian descent even a brief three generations in their past fluently speak Norwegian?

If some tiny percentage can, at least there is economic reason for it. All those tongues are currently in use in the world. One could do some business. But, this woman wants to indoctrinate tribal children with a language that is roughly ten thousand years out of date and spoken nowhere but in the vicinity of the Umatilla Valley, and by no more than ten people at most? Are Egyptian children forced to learn hieroglyphics these days? What possible economic use is there in speaking any aboriginal American tribal language? What economic value to Indians, for that matter, has been the last four decades of fixation on their aboriginal cultures?

The only dramatic economic positive for American Indians in the past four hundred years is the current boom in reservation gambling casinos! Perhaps somebody can explain to me the ancient spiritual tribal connection to a slot machine.

Will speaking the Wasco or the Klamath or the Killamook tongue aid an Indian in getting a teller's job at Wells Fargo Bank? Will the cultural instructions (buried within all languages) in the Umatilla tongue aid a current member of that tribal group in dealing in futures on the stock market? In running a modern agricultural operation? In pumping gas at a station? In preparing meals at a Portland restaurant? In designing a new chip for Intel? What, for God's Sake, has this manic attachment to Things Originally Indian ever done for tribal members in the Pacific Northwest?

I will tell you what it has done. It has isolated them from the larger community in which they must exist. It has prevented them from joining the evolving future of America. It has burdened them with cultural inhibitions and prejudices in a manner very similar to some pockets of urban blacks. These inhibitions and prejudices, sustained in the name of pride of heritage and self-identity are the problem, not the solution to the problem facing groups like this.

These people think that by denying their children full entrance into the American culture they are doing the kids a favor? It makes about as much sense as teaching third-generation Irish kids Gaelic, these days.

The only positive application of an aboriginal American language that has occurred since 1492 was the use of Navajo during the Second World War. It was perfect for sending military messages (as long as you had a Navajo at each end), since for obvious reasons no German or Japanese code breaker had the faintest idea what the language was, let alone what the words might mean.

My ancestral tongues were Gaelic and Norwegian. I can't speak a word in either one. As a writer for the American audience, the language I need to make a living is English. Great fluency in English is the Indian's need, not the ability to speak Tlingit in the Western dialect common to the lands bordering the Bering Sea. Leave that sort of self-indulgence to the PhDs. Common folk like us need a job, not the linguistic capacity of Henry Higgens. Forcing all Indian children to learn their ancient tribal dialect is as functionally useless from an economic standpoint (the Indian's most desperate problem) as teaching Bulgarian, Polish, Dutch, Serbian, Tonganese and Turkish in our schools.

If the Indians must teach their children a language other than English, to help them thrive in today's world there are much better choices than Snohomish or Coos. How about Latin (the language of law and medicine), Greek (the language of biology) and Ebonics (so they'll be able to ask directions in Oakland, California)?

As to the legislative question involved here licensing to teach those who lack academic teaching credentials I think the legislature should do it. So what if what these people want to teach is totally useless in the real world? How is that inferior to twelve years of training in political correctness and self esteem?

How, in fact, is it any different?

The legislature should create an American Indian Teaching Certificate. That way, when the Indian children grow up to be adults living in a Burnside dumpster or in tribal housing out in the middle of nowhere they'll be able to talk to each other in a language German and Japanese spies can't understand.

A Native replies

This is the sickest article I have ever read in my long life. How can economics be put before the survival of a language. The very reason that all of the immigrant languages s/he mentioned that people stop speaking here (Gaelic, German, etc.) is not even part of the equation since they ARE spoken somewhere else. When the Native children stop speaking their language, that language dies. It will not be spoken somewhere else....for economic or any other reason. Can this writer not see the tragedy of this?

Economics be damned. We have saved the world several times over (with food, medicine, war tactics, code messages and what we know about the world we live in) and we may do it again, even if they have to come and get us out of the dumpsters in the middle of nowhere the article mentions.

My hope is that they all get on their space ships and get the heck out of the contaminated world they have created before Turtle Island is in too bad a shape for us to nurse it back to a livable condition....using the languages and knowledge we have managed to pass on to OUR children.

We must also hope that our children do not learn their economic and political lessons from the immigrants in the meantime.

Eulala Pegram

Rob's reply
>> Today's bureaucracies feed on political correctness the way piranhas feed on flesh. <<

See Political Correctness Defined for a rebuttal of the "political correctness" charge.

>> What percentage of Americans of German descent even a brief three generations in their past fluently speak German? <<

What percentage of Americans are ignorant of world affairs, launch unnecessary wars because of it, and waste thousands of lives and billions of dollars in a futile effort to impose "the American way"?

>> What possible economic use is there in speaking any aboriginal American tribal language? <<

The primary benefit is cultural, not economic. Duh. But if you want an economic benefit, keeping the tribe culturally unified and strong lets it generate income (from gaming or tourism) that it couldn't if the tribe dissolved and assimilated.

>> Perhaps somebody can explain to me the ancient spiritual tribal connection to a slot machine. <<

Irrelevant. We're talking about language, not spirituality.

>> Will speaking the Wasco or the Klamath or the Killamook tongue aid an Indian in getting a teller's job at Wells Fargo Bank? <<

Possibly. I believe students who can speak more than one language do better in school. That ultimately makes them more employable.

>> It has isolated them from the larger community in which they must exist. It has prevented them from joining the evolving future of America. <<

We already tried assimilating Indians as a solution. It failed miserably.

See Should Indians Cling to Reservations? for more on the subject.

>> These people think that by denying their children full entrance into the American culture they are doing the kids a favor? <<

Is anybody talking about not teaching kids English, math, and other subjects as well as their Native languages? I don't think so.

>> The only positive application of an aboriginal American language that has occurred since 1492 was the use of Navajo during the Second World War. <<

Don't be ridiculous. Native languages help the people who speak it every day, just as English does.

>> Common folk like us need a job, not the linguistic capacity of Henry Higgens. <<

Note the anti-intellectual bent of this magazine. The writer is just "common folk." Anyone who can speak more than one language is an ivory-tower egghead with a PhD, like Professor Higgins.

>> Forcing all Indian children to learn their ancient tribal dialect is as functionally useless from an economic standpoint (the Indian's most desperate problem) as teaching Bulgarian, Polish, Dutch, Serbian, Tonganese and Turkish in our schools. <<

Native parents want their children to learn their language because they understand its importance in preserving their cultures. And cultural preservation is arguably as critical as economic development.

>> How about Latin (the language of law and medicine), Greek (the language of biology) and Ebonics (so they'll be able to ask directions in Oakland, California)? <<

Ah. With its reference to Ebonics, the magazine reveals its true nature. Not that it was hiding this nature before.

>> The legislature should create an American Indian Teaching Certificate. That way, when the Indian children grow up to be adults living in a Burnside dumpster or in tribal housing out in the middle of nowhere they'll be able to talk to each other in a language German and Japanese spies can't understand. <<

So Native children who grow up learning their own languages and cultures as well as English and the mainstream culture are likely to wind up in dumpsters? Any evidence of that? No, of course not. This is another not-very-veiled racist assertion.


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