Don't Take Language For Granted - Sorrow Felt For Vanishing Language
By Monica Davis
Language, culture and power are interconnected and the death of a culture's language is the death of the culture itself.
So often, we take all of them for granted, assuming that we will always be able to speak, communicate and discourse. But, that is not always true, not for those whose speech is impaired, or whose minds will no longer allow them to manipulate words, concepts, ideas and message. And it is most certainly not true of those whose memories are so terrible, that they burn in the telling.
All over the world, through the ravages of time, we are losing our elders, losing touch with our oral history, and slowly drifting away from the anchors of civilized culture. For many native people, those whose numbers are rapidly dwindling, this is a living death.
A Lakota friend of mine is engaged in an oral history project, which may well take her years to complete. She is chronicling the life experiences and oral traditions of several Lakota female elders on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
In Native cultures around the world, the elders are dying, and taking their native languages to the grave with them. People whose numbers once ranged into the millions are now down to a handful of native speakers, and, when those speakers die, so does the language of their respective cultures, along with the collected oral history of those who came before.
According to linguists, more than 7,000 languages will die over the next century, leaving a dangerous vacuum in the human body politic. For it is the language of the people which reflects its soul, and the cumulative soul of the human race is slowly disintegrating.
Our vibrant languages, tongues, which have a dozen words for ice, or lyrical languages that soothe the soul, even though the listener doesn't understand a word, are slowly fading into oblivion. With the disappearance of those languages, goes a piece of human history, which can never be recreated by human hands.
For all of our arrogance, for all of our hijacking of the word "civilization", western man is woefully ignorant of the language, folkways and history of the world in which he lives. Sadly, he parades his ignorance as superiority, and has spent centuries destroying other cultures, uncaring of the knowledge that was lost with his plundering, as have barbarians who long came before him.
Native American language and culture have been under assault for generations, particularly by federal policies in both the United States and Canada. From the mid-Nineteenth century until as late as 1975, hundreds of thousands of Native children were forced to attend distant 'residential schools' from the age or 4 or 5 to 16. And, in those ensuing years, they were forbidden to use their native tongue, forbidden to come home, forcibly separated from the culture, which birthed them.
Lawsuits have been filed over the alleged abuse, rape and murder, which reportedly took place in those schools, but, for those who survived, the separation from family, adults and culture took a hard toll.
Culture is passed from one generation to another, as is civilized behavior, socialization and language. Forcible assimilation, distant schooling at extremely young ages, in addition to the reported rape, beating and murder, which many residential school attendees say was endemic in both Canada and the United States, took a heavy toll on indigenous populations in North America.
Many people blame the madness in the 'residential schools' to much of the dysfunction in today's Native American and indigenous enclaves. Referring to alleged atrocities at the residential schools, William Combs told reporters, "I saw children being buried at the Catholic residential school in Kamloops. I saw a lot of kids die there. I'm upset the church has gotten away with murdering them." (Aboriginal survivors Press Release)
How many of the residential school students have Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), due to their years of residence at these schools? How many generations of dysfunctional adults passed their own dysfunction on to their kids and communities?
Now, in addition to the cultural trauma of having children ripped from their cultures for six generations and placed in residential schools, indigenous communities are now dealing with the flip side of residential school's trans-generational byproduct-parents who have no parenting skills. Today, Native American children are grossly over-represented in the nation's foster care populations, as the below shown table enumerates.
In some states, Native American children represent as much as 51% of their representative state's foster care population, while comprising no more than 20% of any one state's population. In one state, Native American children make up 10% of the state's foster care population, while only comprising 1% of the state's general population. (Press Release, American Indian Children Overrepresented in Nation's Foster Care System)
The report, titled Time for Reform: A Matter of Justice for American Indian and Alaskan Native Children, found that nationally, American Indian and Alaskan Native children were reported to the state and found to be victims of child abuse and neglect at the rate of 16.5 per 1,000 American Indian and Alaskan Native children.
This rate compares to 19.5 for African American children, 16.1 for Pacific Islander children, 10.8 for White children, and 10.7 for Hispanic children. Native American children are more likely than children of other races/ethnicities to be identified as victims of neglect (65.5%), and they are least likely to be identified as victims of physical abuse (7.3%). (Ibid)
Referring to the monies awarded former residents of these residential schools through a class action lawsuit, one angry woman told fellow bloggers that there was no way for the mainstream religious organizations which perpetrated savageries in the residential school to ever buy their way out of the atrocities. For her, what happened in those schools was perpetrated by monsters, pure and simple. Unfortunately, those deeds of those monsters still lives in the form of the dysfunctional adults, the damaged minds, and the broken souls they left in their wake.
Left behind are a people with an over representation of child neglect, substance abuse and mental anguish, mind pain that is so powerful, even drugs and alcohol can not hold the memories at bay. The old ways, the language, the ties that bind people together as a culture and community have been under assault for two centuries.
Even more telling about the destruction of a culture is the casual rape perpetrated by males of the so-called dominant culture. Forcible assimilation through kidnapping and residential instruction and deculturalization of a culture's children is only one step in the process of destroying a people. Add sexual attack, rape and dehumanization to the mix, and you have yet another tier.
There is a Lakota saying, "A people are not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground." In times gone by-and still occurring in some communities, raping a woman of color was a right of passage, or a proof of manhood for white males. Even today, according to recent case studies, "U.S. indigenous women face 3.5 times the average rate of rape in the U.S. Some 82% of assailants are white men."
The Delaney sisters, African American twins who lived well past 100 years of age, related how black families had to keep their female children out of harms way, or, rather out of the way of potential white rapists. Because it didn't take much for a black man to get lynched in those days, blacks practiced prevention-they kept their daughters as far away from white men as they could, because their fathers were in no position to defend their helpless kin. (Sadie and Bessie Delaney, Having Our Say)
When the last native speaker of these cultures dies, there will be no one left to sing the songs, tell the stories and pass on their legacies. There will be no elders to pass their wisdom on to the next generation. If some have their way, there will be no next generation.
Sorrow Is Felt For A Vanishing Language
By S.E. RUCKMAN - World Staff Writer
I look for stories that are one-of-a-kind.
In covering American Indian affairs, I traveled more than 100 miles into Adair County to find a happily married couple amid feuding tribes.
There's the time I waded waist-deep into a creek alongside a Cherokee gig fisher. He armed me with refashioned bed springs attached to a wooden spear. I caught two crawfish that day.
In another, I watched Choctaw farmers toss mountains of surplus hay onto trucks destined for Navajo country during a drought.
I even balanced a Comanche woman in full regalia off the side of Mount Scott near Lawton during strong winds. Those were notable assignment memories.
The Last Speaker: But those do not top the last fluent speaker of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes. She was a true monument. This lady belonged to the same tribe I was from, but she was not related to me.
I ventured to southwestern Oklahoma with a pioneering spirit. Half of the journey was, well, the journey. It took us three hours to reach the small patch of federal trust land that housed the tribal complex.
We soon found the last speaker of the Wichitas sitting in a small prefab building where she had just made egg sandwiches for tribal employees. The sunlight poured through the blackjack trees that fall day.
She was an elder, meaning she attained that status by having a long life. Dressed in an apron much like my grandma used to wear, her voice rang clear as a bell. Something began to work in me.
I would ask a question, but I heard something besides the answers. Like a faraway radio station one can get only in certain conditions, I picked up a signal on my internal frequency.
I wrote the story, but the low humming inside me was rising. I can speak a smattering of my language and sing our hymns, and I know basics like counting, but I will never be fluent.
It dawned on me that I was feeling grief. The feeling was both tangible and empty.
Defined, grief is a cause of keen distress or sorrow from loss. Bingo.
The story was not happening to some third party that I would leave in my rear view mirror. Doris Lamar, the last fluent Wichita speaker, belonged to me and every one of our 2,300 tribal members.
I interviewed her in the same kitchen used by our tribe for various events. My own family had cooked breakfast there for a visiting tribe a few years ago to honor my late grandfather.
This elder had sat under the same grass arbor I used during our annual powwows in summers past. She had kinfolk listed on the tribal veterans memorial right beside my family members' names.
A Different Kind Of Ownership:For me, it was ownership of a story that I had never encountered. I knew I would carry it with me a long time.
After the story ran, I went to a dinner where female tribal leaders were honored at a banquet. One of the female recipients complimented me on the last speaker story. It resonated with her because she tried hard to maintain her traditions, including language.
I thanked her with a smile but felt a tug in my heart. The story left me with mixed feelings. I was glad for the assignment, but not for the realization that tribal languages are slowly being depleted. My own tribe would soon have no more fluent speakers. Like it or not, I was a part of this story.
And it had nothing to do with the byline.
By S.E. RUCKMAN World Staff Writer
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