It occurs to me that we are probably each and everyone of us in love with language. We read, we write, we struggle with that sentence, that paragraph, that scene. We listen to the words of others, we imitate their speech sounds and imitate dialects, we write them, we say them, we put poetry together so that it moves the spirit of us and our fellow man. The art of language. Candidates hope we’ll listen to their smooth talk and not bother to study their voting records too carefully. Propagandists bank on the fact that we’ll listen and not look — and many of us fall prey to this kind of deceit. Why? I think it’s call the art of language.
Gee, I sure do like this the looks of this man. Sigh. Okay, enough of that. In the mid-1800’s, Indian agents began the start of separating Indian children from their parents and taking them far away to the white man’s school. This was considered by the “do-gooders” (as they are sometimes affectionately referred to in Native America) as beneficial.
But was it?
Let’s have a closer look. Many of those children had never known the inside of 4 walls. They were used to the outdoors life, and they were isolated from their families as well (and to many of them, their families were who they were); they were forbidden to speak their language. They were taught skills that would not equip them to perform well back on the “rez” where they would eventually wind up. It was thought that they could be made over into the image of the white man — and that this would be beneficial for all concerned.
Many of those children committed suicide. Some simply faded away or became sick with the startling difference in food, culture, clothing and way of life. Some learned as well as they could, only to return to their reservations ill-equipped to meet the challenges that would face them there. None ever — not ever — forgot their true heritage. Never. And when times became more tolerant, these people quickly reverted to their roots, as best they could remember them.
One might think that simply forbidding a child to speak his native tongue, and forcing him to learn another language could hardly qualify as abuse. But stay with me here. Let’s look at this more closely.
In Native America, and perhaps in most other cultures, one’s morals and indeed ones idea of what is considered expected of him in the society in which he lives, is conveyed through one’s language. Let me give some examples here to make this a little more real. In Native America, there were no such things as curse words. The name of the Creator, and all concerning that aspect of life was considered so sacred that the very idea of taking the name in vein was entirely foreign. The way in which one addressed his brothers, sisters, his relatives, his uncles and aunts was all part of the language and gave these kinds of stable datums to children from the very beginning of their life. The making of clothes, the industry of the women, the differences between the sexes, the way in which one treated one’s mother-in-law or father-in-law, was all part of the language. If one were to strip one of his right to speak his own tongue, one would also, at the same time, strip one of the moral fiber of the community.
In many ways, taking away the language of the people was as harmful to the First Americans as was the fire-water (and other drugs) brought in by the traders. It pulled the rug out from underneath the child, replacing it with a different set of values that had little to stabilize them, since most of these children would be returning to their reservation and would not be staying in the white man’s world where the new morals would apply. Thus, a man would come back to the reservation unable to hunt and fish and make a living for his family. His family would starve. A woman would come back not able to cook over a fire or to make the kinds of clothes she was taught to sew in the white man’s school. Often she was taught to sew on a sewing machine, and there would be none of those on the reservation.
It was a hard time for those children — not only leaving their families, but also in returning to a world that seemed now foreign to them. Some couldn’t make the change. But what I find interesting is how the language was used to destroy a culture. Language. More examples: We can often “know” a person by the way they speak (or so we think). We listen to the slow drawl of a Texan and some of us sigh. We listen to the fast-paced jargon of a New Englander and our heads might spin just trying to keep up with all they’re saying. Or how about the Saturday Night Live version of a Samurai in the roll of a food server? Just the imitation of the speech patterns of the Samurai, combined with the outrageousness of a restaurant setting was enough to set me to laughing.
Language. It can make us laugh, it can make us cry, it can bring us to our knees. It can soothe, it can enlighten, it can raise our spirits with the beauty of its prose. It can also unfortunately be used by those of devious dispostions to hypotnize. And it can also convey and keep alive simply by its use and its structure, an entire culture.
So tell me what are your thoughts about all this? I do know that I have been told by more than one Native American elder of the importance of language — and how it alone might keep alive a culture. What do you think? Can language do all this? Can language take us to places we’ve never seen, soothe our spirits, become our friend? I know I’m talking to many writers here, so please come on in and let me know what you think.
And May your day be filled with love and happiness.