The Art of Language and the American Indian

horseheader11.jpgI’ll be on the road almost all day today as I slowly make my way to Florida.  Now I’ll be stopping off in Houston on Friday and will be doing a signing at Katy Books there in Houston.  So if you’re in the area, come on by.

Well, today, I thought I’d talk once again about lanugage.  We’ll mostly all readers and writers3397108[1] and it’s occurred to me that we are probably each one 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.

One of my favorite pictures, here.  Okay, now 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 the land of 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.  TheysfCA8898JV 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 tokarl-bodmer-dacota-woman-and-assiniboin-girl[1] 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,images[1] 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 may not be able to respond right away to your posts, but others of the fillies will be here to respond to you. 

Seneca+Surrender[1]Don’t forget, SENECA SURRENDER is one sale at bookstores everywhere.  Pick up your copy today!

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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
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9 thoughts on “The Art of Language and the American Indian”

  1. Terrific, thought-provoking post as always, Kay. First off, have safe travels and much success on your book tour.

    When I realized that, within ten years of Columbus’ “discovery,” the Taino and Arawak tribes had been nearly killed off by European diseases, I thought long and hard about the “discovery.” Languages and cultures must be honored and preserved, that’s for sure.

    Thanks also for the picture of Adam. Always a good way to start the day. oxoxoxoxoxox

  2. My sister worked with Wycliff Bible Translators for a year. She lived in an African village with two ladies who had lived there twenty-five years.
    Wycliff’s goal is:
    Learn the native language. In most cases there is no written language.
    Write down the language. In other words, invent it. A very complex task.
    Teach the people to read their own language.
    Translate a Bible into that language.

    Wycliff believes that stripping a language group of their own language stripped them of their foundation. And often when they were forced to abandon a native tongue the results were much like what we’ve seen in the Native American world in the United States. The disintegration of the family, alcoholism, unemployment. Just a general breaking down of their society.

    So they have put decades into THOUSANDS of native languages around the world trying to bring God and the Bible to the people in their own society.

  3. Kay, it’s really sad when a person isn’t permitted to speak their own language. I’m always struck by the sheer arrogance of the white man who thought they knew what was best for an entire culture. The world is still full of arrogant people.

    Good luck with your book tour. I wish you lots and lots of sales. That Katy bookstore near Houston is really neat. They sure love when authors come to visit their store. Jodi, Phyliss and I had a booksigning there a few years ago. Those ladies really rolled out the red carpet.

  4. Language and its use are part of the foundation of a culture. There are words that cannot be truly translated because the meaning is special to that culture and location. For example the numerous names that arctic tribes have for snow. Snow and the weather conditions related to it are crucial to their survival, therefore, the description of the type of snow is important.

    The best way to destroy a culture is to attack the children and the family. It eats away at the foundation, preventing it from being passed on and kept strong. For some of the whites who were involved in removing Indian children from their homes and sending them away to schools, it was a honest attempt to help a people they felt had little in their life. It was ignorance on their part, the white ego and feeling of superiority justifying the move.

    For others, it was an intentional attempt to destroy many different people. They were well aware the pain and destructive force this move would have on the individuals and on the tribes as a whole. It left these children in limbo, not belonging to either world. The resulting alcohol use and inability to function in either culture was used as an excuse to further restrict the tribes’ rights and functioning. Destroy their life and them blame them for it. It worked all to well for too many years.

    It is interesting that when settlers moved to this country and moved west, they relied on the native way of life to help them survive. Use the indians and their ways when it is convenient and beneficial, then destroy it when it better serves your purposes.

    It is heartening to see many of the tribal cultures making a comeback. They will never be able to regain all they have lost, but many are making successful attempts to regain the language and the practices of their past. Not all who share the heritage are interested in following it, but that is their choice and their loss. It is hard to take pride in a past that is overshadowed by the poverty, hopelessness, and substance abuse that were the result of actions taken over a century ago. Unfortunately, many restrictions are still in place and attempts to improve the different tribe’s situations are often thwarted by outdated government regulations and greedy maneuvering by individuals.

    Let us hope that the current resurgence of tribal identity, culture, and language will help repair the hearts of those who are still lost and looking for their place in the world.

  5. very interesting topic
    i think everyone would agree it’s typically pretty bad to stifle anyone’s heritage
    granted…sometimes traditions can be against the moral values of society (ie-female circ, cock fighting, etc…things we don’t allow here)
    it seems clearly obvious that taking away children from their culture was very wrong…but i’m sure there are many things that are on that grey line making it hard to know what’s right and wrong
    it’s the problem with us…and everyone…many people think their way is the “right” way…but when another culture looks at it, it’s foolish or wrong
    and unfortunately mankind cannot seem to live together peacefully, accepting differences

  6. I have always enjoyed listening to and attempting other languages. As a child I lived in Japan and we had to spend 1 hour every week in Japanese culture class just to learn about our host country. As an adult I studied American Sign Language & became very involved with the Deaf and their culture. The Deaf are very protective of their culture so I am sure other cultures are just as protective.

    Great post.

  7. When my daughter was in grade school I read a book about a young man Sequoyah who invented a way to use symbols for the sounds of the Cherokee language. I believe that he became a representative of the Cherokee Nation. I agree that a language unifies a group.

    I regret that I only know the English language. I work in a store and so many people speak Spanish, French, German, Polish, Russian and English. I’m in awe.

    My in-laws spoke English, German and Hungarian.

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