Starting Indian Kids on English Is Like Inviting Custer Into Your Home

Amy Moore & Mike Taylor

Beds are for white people. I (Mike) have never had a bed at home. Why have a bed that takes up so much space when you can neatly tuck away a sleeping bag in the morning? When money is scarce, when rooms are tiny, when you live in a trailer, or when you move from rental unit to rental unit, a bed is the last thing you need. So even after a generous old gentleman gave two beds for me and my grandpa, we continued to sleep on the floor. This is something most Americans may not understand, but after living without a bed all our life, the sleeping bag on the floor felt more comfortable than the bed. Grandpa and I decided to give both beds away to two sisters who had moved down the street. They were from China and had only a few bags that were allowed by the airlines. I am glad we gave them away because that is how I met Lian. Lian and I became really close friends. She has the habit of saying random things that crack you up. One evening, after we were pulled over by a cop and I was patted down for no reason, she laughed and said, “I am such a pretty Chinese girl and cops think you are some illegal from South America. If you and I have a baby together, our son will look like the classic plains Indians from the movies – like Iron Eyes Cody.” I reminded her that Cody was actually of Italian descent, which made her laugh even harder.

Influenced by our culture, Lian changed her major to American Indian Studies. When Lian completed her program, she wanted to return to China. I tried to get her to remain in the country but she said, “Just like you want to practice medicine on Indian reservations, I want to go back and help my people.” The first picture Lian emailed me after she reached China was a picture of her newly-pierced belly button. That's how random she is! That night, I had a dream about Lian. In my dream, Lian was a beautiful Paiute Indian girl. She raised her top slightly, showed me that she had not one but two bellybuttons, and said to me in the Paiute language, “Nuni wai sixumpi aputsini!!” (Both my bellybuttons look so cute!!). I woke up with a start, half expecting to be in China, but I was still at home sleeping on the floor. I was happy. I prayed to the Great Spirit, “Please let me always dream in Indian.” It is important that we dream in Indian. It is important that we think in Indian. It is important that we speak Indian at home. One day I had asked Lian what the most precious and valuable part of her Chinese culture was. She had thought for a while and then answered, “Language, without a doubt!”

What Lian said would have likely brought a broad smile to the posthumous lips of Benjamin Lee Whorf, the Yale researcher who worked with Hopi Indians. Which brings us to the Whorfian hypothesis, sometimes known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis or Whorfianism, a theory that continues to attract researchers to this day. Whorf said that English speakers could probably understand how Hopis think but they are not actually able to think like the Hopis even if they try. Researchers who favor the stronger version of the Whorfian hypothesis (linguistic determinism) hypothesize that our language determines our thoughts and prevents us from being able to understand certain concepts or think certain thoughts. Language is a prison that constrains our minds, limits our capacity to reason and determines our behaviors. The implication of this is: if an Indian does not know his language, he is unlikely to think or act like an Indian. If we speak in an Indian language, we start thinking like an Indian; likewise, if we speak in a European language like English, we think like a European and eventually become one. Some researchers disagree and favor the weaker version of the Whorfian hypothesis (linguistic relativity) that language very profoundly influences and affects our thinking, our view of the world, our perceptions of reality, cognitive processes, decision making, thought patterns and behaviors. So while the strong version of the Whorfian hypothesis maintains that language determines thought, the weak version asserts that language profoundly influences thought.

Consider Pormpuraaw, an isolated Aboriginal community in Australia. They don't use words like left or right or forward or back because everything is in terms of the four directions. If you ask one of them, “Where's your wife?” the response might likely be “she is to my north-northwest.” They say things like, “my northeast hand is hurting.” If he is facing the other way, he will refer to the same hand as his southwest hand without even thinking about it. If you sit too close to a Pormpuraaw girl, she might thoughtlessly tell you to move a little to the southeast. These natives have to stay directionally well-oriented at all times. Otherwise they simply are not able to communicate with each other. They are constantly aware of the cardinal directions at all times. This enables them to perform amazing navigational feats well beyond the capabilities of other humans. If you blindfold them and try your best to disorient them during a game of hitting the piñata, they still manage to know where the cardinal directions are. Their language instinctively trains them to be acutely cognizant of the four directions, whatever they might be doing. Even if you drop them in the middle of strange and unfamiliar mountains in the night, they manage to find their way back. This is the enormous power of language.

Even simple words affect our perception of reality. The word “bridge” is feminine in German but masculine in Spanish. Researchers asked German and Spanish speakers to describe bridges. German speakers described them as pretty, slender, peaceful, fragile and beautiful while Spanish speakers said they were big, towering, strong, sturdy and dangerous. Likewise, German speakers attributed feminine qualities like slenderness to clocks while Spanish speakers attributed manly qualities like strength to them. With mountains or chairs, which are masculine in German but feminine in Spanish, the effect was completely reversed. Researchers wanted a stronger test, so they went a step further and created a completely fictional Gumbuzi language and trained students in this fictional language. When violin was grammatically female, speakers attributed qualities like artsy, curvy, beautiful, pretty and interesting to the violin. However, when it was grammatically male, they described the violin as noisy, difficult, impressive and overused. Researchers found that adults internalize even Gumbuzi and begin to see the world differently. Which is why when you raise Indian children speaking their Indian language, the impressionable minds begin to see issues quite differently from English speakers.

In George Orwell's 1984, the authoritarian state invented the language Newspeak. The objective was to reinforce absolute dominance by making it impossible for citizens to think critically about the government using the language Newspeak. Something similar was attempted in Indian country not too long ago when the federal government, churches and boarding schools spent hundreds of millions actively trying to kill indigenous languages. It is a shame to think that today Indians don't show up for free language classes on our reservations, even with free pizza as incentive. Our languages are dying. Our time is running out. This is a very serious crisis. We need to turn a corner and take a serious, multi-pronged approach to saving our languages. Like mandatory language instruction in our schools and colleges. Maybe even tying tribal membership to making an effort to learn our language. There's also something else: given that the government spent hundreds of millions actively killing indigenous languages, should we not put enormous pressure on them to spend at least twice that amount now to save our dying languages?

The reason usually given to save our languages is that our languages are worth several millions more than the worthless paintings that adorn various museums. But the Whorfian hypothesis, whether in its stronger version or the weaker version, shows that we have far more compelling reasons to save our languages. A language is a lot more precious than we think it is. If we lose our language, we lose everything, including our thought process. The most important task of all lies with mothers. Because they are the ones who can ensure that their child grows up speaking Indian as their first language. They are the ones who can make sure that their child grows up learning to think in Indian. Mothers are the ones who can ensure that their child will dream in Indian. As Lian once said, starting Indian kids on English is like bringing Custer into your homes and introducing him to Indian children as their playmate.

Mike Taylor is a student in the ALB program at Harvard University and hopes to serve as a physician on isolated and remote Indian reservations. Amy Moore is passionate about saving as many Indian languages as possible. If your tribal college or university would like to offer an indigenous language class online to a much wider audience through avenues like Coursera, you are encouraged to contact Amy Moore at [email protected].

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Two Bears Growling's picture
While Mr. Taylor has good intentions with this article, the sad fact is that so few of our native peoples are even fluent enough to teach our languages. Our elders have many times been neglected treasures so many times overlooked for the vast knowledge they hold of our ancestors, our languages, traditions, etc. Each time one of our elders passes away we lose so much knowledge & one more person who knew our languages fluently. We are losing our fluent speakers at alarming rates in many places across Indian Country. For many of us, our native languages were not even spoken in our homes due to the fact many times our own parents could not speak it themselves. When our ancestors were stolen from their homes & sent off to all the government schools they were beat & worse if they spoke their native languages or practiced our first religions, by the time they got away from those vile places they could not speak the languages due to the pain they associated if they did in those terrible places. As a result a number of times, our parents & grandparents didn't pass on those languages our ancestors spoke. We all suffer even after many decades of the initial abuse & torture of our relations while they were children at these awful places they called "schools". Institutions they were, but schools they were not many times due to all the abuse & even death of those who were taken to those torture centers. Every word of our native languages are powerful & can work miracles even if we have to start with the youngest among our people. One person at a time, one family at a time, one community at a time & one tribal nation at a time. In just one generation many could be taught our languages. Knowledge IS power!
Two Bears Growling
From Australia: "Compensation would not only reclaim and revitalise 232 lost languages, but also seek to restore the social health and well-being of Aboriginal people." http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2014/02/03/call-compensation-over-stolen-indigenous-languages
metis22's picture
Thank you ICT for this article and the earlier one concerning what is "domination." Something we are NOT taught is to realize what thinking is, how we are "thinking" at the moment and how we are not aware of how we re-act without thinking. Sometimes it is hard to stop ourselves from the European viewpoint of hierarchy, that people are "better" or "no good" because of how much they make or what clothes they have on, or whether or not they even want to take part in the all encompassing "rat race" - that's totally European-think; non-Native. It is not even legal to "think" you can live outside society by living on and with the Earth, that makes you either homeless, a vagrant, a hobo or a "nut case." No more "Grizzly Adams," either - also totally European think. You want to live together as a people, a self-sustaining unit? - you must be a Communist!, oh wait, again that Native think, too. Yes, language tells us how not to think. When there were no words for profanity people could not disrespect what is greater than the present, the present "society." Two Bears Growling is also correct. I can hear and understand some Gwy but I can't speak it; now I will take the time to learn, I will MAKE the time to learn: the difference in words.