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Huh? What? Is that a word? Yeah, it is… But we’ll get to that in a little bit. First, I want to introduce you to a bit of American history you may not know. Most people don’t.
Racism is insidious and can lie dormant in our social relations as long as the hierarchy is maintained. This is true for the White – African-American relationship that evolved after the Civil War and it is true for the White – Native American relations since the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act which was designed to force the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” to move west of the Mississippi, then the western boundary of the burgeoning United States.
While the Act was supposedly “voluntary,” there were countless examples of coercive action on the part of the US government. This was all part of the so-called “Manifest Destiny” of the United States. Native Americans were pushed west and into, for the most part, Oklahoma.
Once they were removed from the east (and the higher-denstity population zones), the real process of eradication and assimilation could begin. Not necessarily physical eradication (although our treatment of Native Americans barely rises to the level of indifference, that’s a topic for another day), but a cultural eradication.
Boarding schools were major agents in the loss of Indian languages. Children who were caught speaking Indian languages were rapped on the knuckles or made to stand in corners with rags tied around their mouths. Many children forgot their languages or became ashamed to even admit that they knew them.…
Language is the major carrier of culture.… When the language is lost, a great deal of the culture is lost also. Many things cannot be fully translated. With the words, sounds and rhythm of native speech goes the heart of the culture. Nothing was done more to weaken Indian culture than attacks on Indian languages made in B.I.A. [Bureau of Indian Affairs] boarding schools….
Many Indian children who spent their formative years in boarding schools grew up unable to fit comfortably into either Indian or non-Indian society. These children had essentially lost their parents and the chance of a normal family life. They had been subjected to rigorous discipline combined with attacks on their personal and cultural identity, and denied nurturing relationships with any adults.…
When and if these children returned to their tribes, they often had difficulty fitting into a family and tribal life which they did not completely understand. Having been denied normal Indian childhood experiences and role models, they were delayed in their social and emotional development as Indian people. A large number of these children developed severe problems in adulthood, such as alcoholism, depression and violent behavior.
One lasting consequence of the boarding school experience has been an upsurge in child neglect and a cycle of removal of successive generations of Indian children from their parents. (from The Swinomish Tribal Mental Health Project (1991))
So imagine my surprise when I read that a school in Wisconsin, in 2012, was re-enacting a version of this cultural hegemony.
SHAWANO, WISCONSIN – What’s love got to do with it? Not much, especially if you say the words “I love you” in the Menominee language in front of a certain Wisconsin teacher.
Seventh grader Miranda Washinawatok, Menominee, found this out.
Miranda speaks two languages: Menominee and English. She also plays on her basketball team. However, two Thursdays ago she was suspended for one basketball game because she spoke Menominee to a fellow classmate during class.
Miranda attends Sacred Heart Catholic Academy in Shawano, Wisconsin. The school body is over 60 percent American Indian. The school is approximately six miles from the south border of the Menominee Indian Tribe Reservation.
Miranda and a fellow classmate were talking to each other when Miranda told her how to say “Hello” and “I love you” in Menominee.
Ketapanen, the title of this post, means “I love you” in Menominee.
“The teacher went back to where the two were sitting and literally slammed her hand down on the desk and said, “How do I know you are not saying something bad?”
Perhaps this teacher should learn a few words in the native language of 60% of her students. Perhaps she shouldn’t assume that the children are misbehaving. Perhaps she could ask the question, “Excuse me, that’s beautiful! What does it mean?”
The story did not end there. In the next session, another teacher told Miranda she did not appreciate her getting the other teacher upset because “she is like a daughter to me.”
By the time, Miranda was picked up by her mother she was upset for being suspended.
This young woman was suspended for having the audacity to speak her native language. Cultural eradication rarely percolates to the surface like this, but when it does, it’s instructive to recognize the roots of this institutional racism. This is why what this teacher did was so awful.
But I expect this teacher will come to regret targeting this particular Native American student.
“Miranda knows quite a bit of the Menominee language. We speak it. My mother, Karen Washinawatok, is the director of the Language and Culture Commission of the Menominee Tribe. She has a degree in linguistics from the University of Arizona’s College of Education-AILDI American Indian Language Development Institute. She is a former tribal chair and is strong into our culture,” states [Miranda’s mother,] Tanaes Washinawatok.
Haven’t Native American’s suffered enough at the hands of Europeans? Must they go on suffering this kind of cultural humiliation?
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