Suspension of American Indian Student for Speaking Native Language Is Ignorant and Intolerant

Jerry L. Hill

On January 19, a Menominee Indian seventh grader named Miranda Washinawatok was benched and suspended from a Catholic School in Shawano, Wisconsin, for speaking her Native Menominee language with two other girls from the Menominee reservation. Shawano is a small town located several miles south of the reservation; like many off-reservation communities, there is a longstanding history of racist attitudes against Indians, although we like to think that the relations have improved over the years. Unfortunately, this incident shows that racism is alive and well in Wisconsin. That this also happened in a parochial school makes it a wake-up call for everyone who believes that America has moved beyond such displays of ignorance. Historical precedents to this type of action are plentiful—think of all the Native children who were cruelly punished for speaking their languages in the shameful days of Indian boarding schools in the 20th century. Yet, the bad-heartedness behind this history persists when a 12-year-old child is subjected to such treatment in 2012.

The Washinawatok family is a well-respected family at the Menominee reservation. They have a long history of involvement in American Indian issues at home and abroad. Miranda’s great aunt, Ingrid Washinawatok, was murdered in Colombia in 1999 while working for the rights of Indigenous people there. Her grandmother, Karen Washinawatok, is currently the director of the Menominee Language Program, and former chairwoman of the Menominee Language and Culture Commission and is a past Menominee tribal chairwoman. Last year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Karen was a presenter at a symposium sponsored by the Indigenous Language Institute. Miranda’s great grandfather, James Washinawatok, was a tribal judge, whose namesake grandson is now a practicing attorney.

This family, like many others in Indian country, has been generationally dedicated to the preservation of the culture and sovereignty of their people and Indigenous people everywhere. So my response is much more than an expression of moral support or a reaction to a single incident; my response has joined others that are resonating throughout Native communities in the U.S., Canada and the Western Hemisphere. Of course, there are those who have trivialized this incident, but seemingly small events are the catalyst for huge reactions. I believe this is one such incident that proves the days when one was forbidden to speak his or her Native language are not behind us but, sadly, is still part of the mindset of many Americans.

The work of the Indigenous Language Institute, on which I currently serve as president, is to help preserve the use of heritage languages of Indians and other Native people here and throughout the world. The Washinawatok incident has served to refocus the attention of Indian Country and the general public on how the use of one’s Indigenous language is still an active, controversial and, sometimes, explosive issue. Moreover, it is a sharp reminder that we continue to live among those whose ignorance would force them to strike out at a child upon hearing words they don’t understand.

The Indigenous Language Institute stands with the Washinawatok family, especially Miranda—the brave young girl who drew the wrath of her teachers, the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin and Native peoples everywhere who have endured such undeserved abuse for simply using the language of their ancestors.

Let’s all show our support for Miranda Washinawatok and the countless others who have been disrespected by ignorant adults who ought to know better.

Jerry L. Hill, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, is the president of the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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twoskirts's picture
Grandpa Walter, people are still learning. So sad you went through this, too. Sad mom got her braids pulled. But it's alright. Like it or not indigenous folk are still living, breathing, and SPEAKING.
glennbrunsell's picture
First of all I would like to say that this story doesn't tell me enough .I would like to know what the child said in her language to the other students and if these words that she spoke were able to be interpreted by the people who were involved in the suspension.I understand enough of My own language to understand what people want and if they are being derogatory some of our words that we speak can be taken that way if they are not spoken correctly or in the tone of wich they are spoken. I deal a greatly with other languages in My job and have come across people speaking in other languages not realizing that there are other people around that understand what they are saying. so I would like to know more about this incident before I would repost it.
arizonalivewire's picture
@glen she was not suspended for what she said but the langauge she used.. period and that is wrong..! Here in Arizona they have ESL classes and translation classes to help spanish and cater to their langauge needs.. but this is proof it's still ok to be racist to Native Americans..!
curtj's picture
In Alaska the missionaries wo had boarding schools, punished the Indigenous school children for speaking their language and practicing their cultures. The US government which ran the Boarding schools, punished the Indigenous school children for speaking their languages and practicing their cultures. The properties surrounding the boarding schools in Alaska are filled with graves of infants, secretly buries, who were born to schoolchildren who were molested by the ones entrusted for their wellbeing and schooling It's called assimilatin and is cultural genocide foisted on the Indigenous by the whites who are determined to steal what is left after centuries of theft and murder. The Indigenous people know the score and the aim of the US government which to get rid of the Indigenous once and for all, so the centuries of theft and murder can be swept under the rug, and you know something? Our so called Native leaders are helping them by saying nothing, by not raising hell at the policies of theft and murder.
helenkarmolinski's picture
I think this is outrageous, this country brings all different kinds of nationalities to this country to live and their speaking their native language everyday out in public. But yet in 2012, we natives can not speak our native language? i would be filing a lawsuit. church or not.
piqua's picture
Thank you Jerry and the Indigenous Language Institute for the work you do. Let's call the efforts by the churches and the governments to destroy our respective Indian languages what they were "Linguicide," the intentional killing of languages. Thousands of years of linguistic evolution by our ancestors in many instances destroyed because of an ideology and paradigm of domination, destruction, and greed. The fact that this was a parochial (presumably Catholic)school makes this example emblematic of the fact that the Church itself has evidently not evolved. Catholic Church efforts to "kill the Indian" by endeavoring to destroy our languages, cultures, and traditions is in keeping with the terminology of numerous Catholic documents issued by the so-called 'Holy See.' Think of this language issued by Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal: 'to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue, all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ, to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to take away all their possessions and property. Other key terms found in other such Church documents are "subjugate" "deprimantur" "dominorum christianorum," ("Christian dominator") "dominationes." Some sixty percent of the English language is actually Latin, which is the language of the Roman Empire, and therefore predicated on and replicates in our time the mentality of the Roman Empire. Think 'Roman Catholic ('universal') Church.' This, and the continuing dehumanization of our peoples, is the historical context of this story of our young sister, Miranda, who bears the same surname as our amazingly brilliant sister Ingrid.