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Fall 1995, Volume 12.3



George Ann Gregory

Dissolution: The Politics of Language for Native Americans*

George Ann Gregory, Chahta/Ani-Yun-Wiya (Ph.D., University of New Mexico) lives in Albuquerque, NM, and works as an independent consultant for Native American communities and schools. She has published stories and poems in various anthologies.


*Native American refers to contemporary U.S. indigenous people. Indian refers to these same people in a historical sense.


I grew up speaking English, but English is not my language. It is the language of my conquerors, and my speaking it serves to remind me and others that I am of a conquered people. My mother tongues are Cherokee and Choctaw. However, I have virtually no knowledge of Cherokee and limited ability in Choctaw, which I am having to learn as a second language as an adult. Language loss in my family follows the historical pattern of immigration: as my grandmothers, already bilingual, left their respective Indian Nations and moved into the United States, loss of their languages was complete by the third generation.

Not having the use of my mother tongues effectively isolates me from my own past and many of my cousins who still speak these languages. For me as well as many others, this loss results in confusion about personal and national identity. Additionally, this kind of language shift generates suspicion among all Native Americans. My case is not unique. Many Native American grandmothers and grandfathers have traded and continue to trade their respective traditional identities for the promise of economic prosperity for themselves and their children's children.

In the summer of 1991, Jim Cummins, speaking before an audience at the American Indian Languages Development Institute, predicted that in Canada only four indigenous languages would survive into the next century: three Eskimo languages and Cree, all in the remote Northwest Territories. The two indigenous languages in the United States which he mentioned were Navajo and Choctaw. The loss of the use of indigenous languages can be traced to four interrelated factors: (1) an eroding land-base related to the loss of nation status, (2) immigration/removal, (3) intermarriage, and (4) the introduction of U.S. controlled schools for Indians.

Contrary to the image engendered in U.S. history books, the land which was to become this nation was inhabited. Current estimates place the indigenous population of what is now the continental United States between fifteen to twenty-two million people prior to European contact. There were a million-and-a-half people living in Florida, for example. At the same time, the number of languages spoken in North America numbered an estimated two-hundred-and-seventy-two. The national character of Indian societies was recognized by these first Europeans who guaranteed this status through negotiation of treaties, a policy followed by the English colonies and the fledgling U.S. As Europeans continued to immigrate to this continent, however, the U.S. government rushed to meet their increasing demands for land. First, they forcibly removed entire nations, as in the case of the Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Cherokee. This policy left populations split through politics and geography as parts of nations removed while some contingency elected to remain.

Eventually, Indian wars, followed by more "civilized" policies of individual allotment, blood quantums, termination, and relocation managed to erode further the land bases originally guaranteed by treaties. These policies forced many Native people, whether they wanted it or not, into the United States as they lost their protected status. After the Dawes Actthe law that reduced lands held in trust by Indian nations to 160 acres per enrolled citizen and to be individually owned—many Indians lost their individual allotments, for example, and migrated to cities where they could find work. Later, the U.S. lured more off their reservations by promises of employment. Currently intermarriage, along with the U.S. policy of blood quantum, guarantees fewer and fewer Native Americans as we move into the twenty-first century. Additionally, many Native Americans who marry outside their communities use English as a medium of communication within their households.

The ability of Indians to maintain nation status was tied to these guaranteed land rights. As nations, they had not only the right to decide citizenry but also national language use. Consequently, government and commerce within these nations continued to be conducted in indigenous languages even into this century. In order to understand the magnitude of land-base loss, let me provide some examples: the Choctaw were forced in 1830 to cede over ten million acres of rich bottom land east of the Mississippi for approximately one-fourth that acreage in Indian Territory; the land-base of the Mississippi Band of the Anishinabe Nation has been reduced from their recognized twenty million acres of a hundred and fifty years ago to less than 60,000 acres today; the Lakota lost control of their sacred Black Hills in 1876; and the Western Shoshone lost ninety percent of 43,000 acres to a nuclear testing site.

To further reduce this land-base, in 1887 the U.S. Congress passed the Dawes Act which broke up Indian Nations into individual allotments with the excess to be sold to non-Indians. At the same time Indian Councils were pressured to disband, such as the Choctaw Council, which disassembled in the 1920s. As a final blow to Indian sovereignty, the United States granted citizenship to Indians in 1924. Loss of indigenous languages was soon to follow this loss of nation status.

For linguistic purposes, nationality is defined as "a group of people who think of themselves as a social unit different from other groups" (Fasold 2). It is easy to see that until the enactment of the Dawes Act, it was possible for most Indian Nations to maintain this definition. While language, culture, religion and history represent components of nationalism, or the building of a sense of nation, the mother tongue remains the essence of nationality. It is the primary marker of "contrastive self-identity" (Fasold 3) that serves as a marker of group identity as well as a unifying factor for one group which separates that group from others. It is not necessary for nationalities to have their own autonomous territory in order to maintain this distinction. An eroding land-base alone could not have created the current demise of indigenous languages. However, the addition of U.S. controlled schooling for Indians with its relentless purge of group and individual identity has dealt a heavy blow to a sense of nationality among Indians.

The period between the passing of the Dawes Act in 1877 and the passage of the Indian citizenship bill in 1924 was one of the darkest in the history of Indian America: the total Indian population had been reduced by ninety-six percent with most living in poverty and dying young of imported diseases.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the status of the Indian was not only bleak, it was hovering on the edge of disaster. The dual inheritance of the assimilation policies of education and land allotment had already given some indication of their potential ability to damage if not destroy a majority of the Indian people. During the next three decades (1900-1930) the unchecked pursuit of these policies led the Indian to a point of no return. (Szazs 12)

It appeared that the U.S. had found a final solution for their "Indian problem." The second blow to maintaining indigenous language use, then, came through the increased establishment of schools for Indians by the U.S. government.

Prior to U.S. interference, missionaries had carried out educational work among Indians beginning in the late 1700s. Several Indian nations, notably the Choctaw and the Cherokee, had established outstanding educational systems, achieving high rates of literacy in their own national languages. Both groups achieved eighty percent literacy by the 1880s (Perdue 123). In fact, at the request of the U.S. government, the Choctaw Nation provided education for non-Indians living within their borders. However, most Americans believed Indians incapable of being educated, an opinion that I have heard voiced by non-Indian teachers working today in Indian schools.

Despite this prevailing attitude, Richard Henry Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1879. Its apparent success led to an expansion of off-reservation industrial boarding schools so that by the turn of the century there were a total of twenty-five. In order to fill these schools, Indian children were forcibly removed from their families. At the boarding schools, Indian students were punished for using their own languages. Graduates of these schools were no longer able to function well within their respective communities. Boarding schools continued most of these policies until fairly recently.

Additionally, many non-Indians complained that the schools were not working because the majority of students "returned to the blanket." During this period many Indian Nations continued to fund mission schools, finding them generally more effective. Language policy in federally funded schools was established in 1880 when Under Secretary of the Interior Carl Scharz issued these regulations: "all instruction must be English" (Reyhner 4l).

Despite this language policy, Indian children continued to come to school speaking only indigenous languages. As the result of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, there began an educational push for instruction in children's own languages. Funding was provided to produce written materials in indigenous languages. During the 1960s and 70s, reading materials were developed in many Native American languages, including Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Crow, and Lakota. However, after one generation of these programs, Native American children no longer came to school speaking their own languages. By pushing these community languages into a domain and function already dominated by English, they became doomed. Additionally, years of assimilationist policy had convinced many Native American parents that speaking an indigenous language was a hindrance to both academic and economic advancement.

At the same time, Native American children continued to be at the bottom of the educational scale: they had the lowest standardized test scores; they had the highest drop-out rate; and they had the fewest college graduates. As we move into the next century, virtually nothing has changed. At a recent meeting between Native American parents and Albuquerque Public School officials, I heard the representatives of this school district tell the parents that most of their children scored below the fortieth percentile. This is no surprise since the primary purpose of standardized tests is to serve existing institutions and maintain an educated elite. The economic reality is that highly technologized societies only need a few well educated people to keep them going. However, these societies do need large numbers of consumers.

Native Americans statistically have poor command of written English, and often their spoken English is viewed detrimentally by prospective employers. The majority of Indians living within the U.S. qualify for only the most menial of jobs. An eroding land-base has cut off most Indians living within their own territories from traditional livelihoods. As a Native American educator, I know that Native American students do excel when given classrooms and instruction that allow them to do this. The solution to education in English lies within two areas. The first is Native American community controlled schools. Historically, Indian children have fared better when they attend schools controlled and funded by their own people. The language and culture of Native American children must represent the core of their curricula and instructional paradigms. Having curricula is not only essential for individual academic achievement but for the continuation of a sense of nationality.

Many Native Americans, however, now live and work within the U.S. Within this educational system, they are viewed as just another ethnic minority. Those school districts that address their educational needs at all do so only in a token manner. The current system enforces the disintegration of nationality, resulting in a loss of personal identity for its Native American students. However, the current U.S. educational system continues to be a failure not only for its so-called minorities but for the majority of students. The second solution must come from change within this system: this system, like this nation, must acknowledge the contribution of all its people to its current nation status. The contribution of Indians to the establishment and on-going prosperity is considerable. For example, the U.S. owes Native Americans a vote of gratitude for its Constitution as well as most of its major cash crops.

What of the fate of the hundreds of indigenous languages? Many are gone forever. The last Natchez speaker died in the 1970's. His grandchildren grew up among the Cherokee and spoke some Cherokee, but mostly they spoke English. Other languages hover near the brink of extinction. Only the speakers of these languages and their respective nations have any chance of reversing this trend. In February 1993 I met with a young Onandaga man who was embarking on an ambitious project of reviving his nation's language through the use of linguistic transcriptions of ceremonies and the elders who still speak Onandaga. During the summer of 1993 I worked with an Omaha woman who had been sent by her nation to learn how to reinstate Omaha. In Arizona, the Yaqui are successfully reintroducing their language with the help of their southern relatives in Mexico. In Peach Springs, Arizona, Lucille and Philbert Watahomogie, with the help of Akira Yamamoto from the University of Kansas, worked with the Hualapai elders to develop an orthography, reading materials, and curriculum which was acceptable to that nation.

Recently, my youngest son announced his intention to become a fluent Choctaw speaker, and even my oldest son can greet others in that language. My friend Margaret, a Muskoke and a language specialist, recently returned from Florida where she worked with Seminoles, helping them to relearn their own language. All of these efforts work against traditional linguistic wisdom. However, as we move into the next century, Indian people continue to grow in numbers. Despite on-going policies by the U.S. government to legislate us into non-existence, we are still here. Many Indian people have found their voices, and learning our mother tongues can only serve to strengthen us spiritually: it serves to bring us closer to our ancestors and to each other. I, for one, hope that the future of Indian people includes the representation of our dual citizenship through embracing individual bilingualism. Yakoke.



Churchill, Ward, Ed. Critical Issues in Native North America. Copenhagen: IWGIA, 1989.

DeRosier, Arthur H., Jr. The Removal of the Choctaw Indians. New York: Harper,1970.

Fasold, Ralph. The Sociolinguistics of Society. London: Blackwell, 1984.

Fishman, Joshua, Ed. Readings on the Sociology of Language. The Hague: Mouton, 1970.

Gregory, George Ann. "Standard or Standards: How Diné Students Get It Right." Journal of Navajo Education 11 (1993): 33-40.

Nairn, Allan. The Reign of ETS: The Corporation That Makes Up Minds. Washington, D.C.: Ralph Nader, 1980.

Ohmann, Richard. "Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital." College English, 45 (1985): 675-689.

Perdue, Theda. Nations Remembered. Norman, OK: U. of Oklahoma P, 1993.

Reyhner, Jon, Ed., Teaching the American Indian Student. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1990.

Szazs, Margaret. Education and the American Indian. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1974.


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