Teaching Indigenous Languages
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Note: This paper was first published in The Journal of Educational Issues of Language Minority
Students, Volume 12, Special Issue III, Summer 1993, pp. 35-59.
American Indian Language Policy and School SuccessJon Reyhner
On October 30, 1990, President Bush signed the Native American Languages Act (Title I of Public Law 101-477). Congress found in this Act that "the status of the cultures and languages of Native Americans is unique and the United States has the responsibility to act together with Native Americans to ensure the survival of these unique cultures and languages" (102, 1). Congress made it the policy of the United States to "preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages" (104, 01). "The right of Indian tribes and other Native American governing bodies to use the Native American languages as a medium of instruction in all schools funded by the Secretary of the Interior" is recognized (104, 5). Furthermore, the act declared that "the right of Native Americans to express themselves through the use of Native American languages shall not be restricted in any public proceeding, including publicly supported education programs" (105).
The Native American Languages Act has three important implications. First, it is a continuation of the policy of Indian self-determination that has been effect over the last twenty years. Second, it is a reversal of the historical policy of the United States Government to suppress Indian languages in Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and other schools. And third, it is a reaction to the attempt to make English the official language of the United States. The Act represents the grass roots support of Indian people for their native heritage. This article looks from a historical perspective at what impact the implementation of the American Indian Languages Act might have on Indian education.
There is no question that there are problems with Indian education today that need immediate attention. The 1991 Audit Report of the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Inspector General showed students in BIA schools achieving on average far below non-Indian students and "generally not receiving quality educations" (Office of Inspector General, p. 11). Bureauwide average percentiles ranged from a third and ninth grade low of the 24th percentile to a twelfth grade high of the 32nd percentile. Students in only two out of 153 schools had average scores at or above the fiftieth percentile (Office of Inspector General, p. 11). The issue today is how do we change Indian education without repeating mistakes of the past.
The history of the suppression of American Indian languages is especially relevant today as organizations such as U.S. English and English First lobby for a constitutional amendment to make English the official language of the United States. Crawford ( 1990) identified sixteen states that have made English their official language. In addition, books, articles, and special issues of journals are being published that debate the pros and cons of bilingual education in United States schools (e.g., Baron, 19 90; Hakuta & Pease-Alvarez, 1992; Porter, 1990). This debate of language use has implications for Indian education for both tribes that want to maintain their tribal languages and for tribes who want to restore languages that were suppressed in past years.
The implications of the current English-Only movement for American Indian education were clearly expressed recently, ironically in the Journal of American Indian Education, by Glenn Latham. Latham (1989) considers a child's non-English native language as a liability to be quickly overcome rather than an asset to be built upon. He warns that if tribes should decide "that English will be taught as a second language, or that the tribal language will be the language of instruction through grades two or three, it must be understood that such a decision has cultural, social, and economic consequences" (pp. 8-9). He contends that only exceptional individual Indians have been able to retain their native languages and also be successful in the white world. Latham quotes former Secretary of Education T. H. Bell to the effect that, "regardless of students' cultural and ethnic background, if they are to hope for access to the full range of options available in our society, the language of their education must be English: no other language will suffice" (Latham, 1989, p. 8). Bell's successor as Secretary of Education, William Bennett also expected non-English speaking students "to speak, read, and write English as soon as possible" (1986, p. 62). Bell and Bennett might as well have been quoting Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz or Commissioner of Indian Affairs J.D.C. Atkins who expressed the same opinion over a hundred years ago (Reyhner & Eder, 1989).
Missionaries and native language use
The use of indigenous American languages in Indian education has a long history in the Americas. The Reverend John Eliot came to America in 1631 and preached to Indians in their own tongue in 1646. In 1663, he got the New Testament published in the Massachusett language with the help of Indian translators and printers (Szasz, 1988). Missionaries often noted the value of using Indian languages in their educational work. In the early Nineteenth Century, a Northeast mission school used only books written in the Chippewan language. When the missionaries later switched to instruction in English, the quality of education declined (Layman, 1942). Stephen R. Riggs (1880) found teaching English in the 1830s to the Sioux "to be very difficult and not producing much apparent fruit" (p. 61). It was not the students lack of ability that prevented them from learning English, but rather their unwillingness. "Teaching Dakota was a different thing. It was their own language" (p. 61). Riggs and Pond wrote a religious oriented Dakota primer published in 1839. Pond was convinced that his influence on Indians "would depend very much on the correctness and facility" with which he spoke their language" (1893, p. 215). He wrote in his autobiography, "It has often been represented by persons having a superficial knowledge of Indian languages that they are imperfect and defective, and can be made to express but a very limited range of ideas" and declared that representation untrue in regard to Dakota (1893, p. 50).
The success of missionaries in spreading the new Dakota orthography is indicated by the report Mr. Janney, a Quaker, to the Board of Indian Commissioners in 1871. He wrote that "A very small portion of the tribe, so far as I could discover, speak or write the English language, but a large number speak and write their own, and are able to hold correspondence with those who are in Minnesota and Wisconsin" (Annual Report, 1871, p. 161). In the same report a Mr. Welsh wrote "Theirs is a phonetic language, and a smart boy will learn it in three or four weeks; and we have found it far better to instruct them in their own language, and also to teach them English as fast as we can" (Annual Report, 1871, p. 168).
In contrast to the success of native language instruction, reports on English language instruction were often discouraging. The fourth Annual Report of the Board of Indian Commissioners for 1872 dilineates some examples of this. For instance, an Indian Agent from Tahlequah, Indian Territory, supported bilingual education, reporting that "The children . . . go to school, and with great labor learn to read and write English, but without understanding the meaning of the words they read and write" while "almost the whole of those Cherokees who do not speak English can read and write the Cherokee by using the characters invented by Sequoyah" (p. 159). A teacher from the Wichita Agency, Indian Territory, noted that students after eight months were "reading fluently in Wilson's First and Second Readers, the difficulty being they do not understand what they read" (p. 159). The superintendent of the school for Creeks reported students lacking "school language" and "those who do speak English use a miserable idiom, which must be 'drilled' out in the school room" (p. 160). Colonel Porter mentioned Creek students who "learned to read in the first and second readers, and would not understand a thing, but would know it all by heart" (p. 191). Again, the Reverend John B. Jones described students who could speak and write English without understanding. On the other hand, Reverend Jones found that "almost the entire [Cherokee] population who do not read English or speak English can read and write their own language" (p. 189).
In the fifth Annual Report of the Board of Indian Commissioners for 1873, the Reverend J.C. Lowrie of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions reported on a teacher in Nebraska,
Government suppression of Indian languages
After the Civil War, President Grant appointed Peace Commissioners in an attempt to bring an end to the Indian wars on the frontier. The commission concluded that language differences led to misunderstandings and that:
Through sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment, and thought; customs and habits are molded and assimilated in the same way, and thus in process of time the differences producing trouble would have been gradually obliterated. . . .
In the difference of language to-day lies two-thirds of our trouble. . . . Schools should be established, which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialect should be blotted out and the English language substituted. (Report of the Indian Peace Commissioners, 1868, pp. 16-17)
The instruction of the Indians in the vernacular is not only of no use to them, but is detrimental to the cause of their education and civilization, and no school will be permitted on the reservation in which the English language is not exclusively taught. (Atkins, 1887, pp. xxi-xxiii)
Missionaries favored ending tribal traditions, but they were more willing than the government to use tribal languages in their educational efforts. Reverend S.D. Hinman reported "it is a wonder to me how readily they learn to read our language; little fellows will read correctly page after page of their school books, and be able to spell every word, and yet not comprehend the meaning of a single sentence" (1869, p. 25). Hinman complained about the "monotony and necessary sameness of the school-room duty" (1869, pp. 25 & 29). In contrast to the problems associated with getting Indians to learn English, Hinman reported that three adult Yankton (Sioux) warriors rode back and forth from their agency forty miles every week to learn to read and write their own language (1869, p. 33).
In 1871 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions started publishing with the Dakota mission a monthly newspaper called IAPI OAYE (The Word Carrier) mostly in the Dakota language. An editorial in an early edition of that paper declared,
The vernacular question became caught up with the anti-Catholicism of the period. While the presidentially appointed Board of Indian Commissioners was all Protestant, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions through an organized drive to establish mission schools garnered the lion's share of government funding. Catholic Indian schools were grouped with urban Catholic parochial schools by Protestants who labeled both as un-American in contrast to the non-denominational public schools. James M. King, representing "The National League for the Protection of American Institutions" declared "much Roman Catholic teaching among the Indians does not prepare them for intelligent and loyal citizenship" (Annual Report, 1892, p. 65). Soon after, Commission er of Indian Affairs and Baptist minister T. J. Morgan accused Catholics of "treason" and declared "We ought to insist that the flag shall float over every schoolhouse, that American songs shall be sung" (Annual Report, 1893, p. 130).
The journal Education greeted the appointment of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Morgan and Superintendent of Indian Schools Dorchester, a Methodist minister, saying they were in "hearty sympathy with American ideas, and the American theory of education and system of public schools" (Editorial, 1890, p. 449). To help end government funding of Catholic mission schools, the parent mission societies of most Protestant mission schools, including Riggs', ceased applying for government funds, and between 1895 and 1900 direct government funding of mission schools was ended with the result that many mission schools were forced to close or reduce their size.
Once Morgan and Dorchester left the Indian Service upon the election of a new President, attitudes changed again. The new Superintendent of Indian Schools criticized workers in Indian schools for knowing "little about the Indian as an Indian" (Annual Report, 1896, p. 119). He went on to say that the change in view from the Indian as a savage to the Indian as a human being had led to greater use of native languages in schools (Annual Report, 1896, p. 120). Yet, when the government issued a new set of Rules for Indian Schools in 1898, rule number 198 reiterated that,
Lack of specialized training for teachers of Indian students
Thus government policy vacillated on the language issue, but without dedicated teachers a policy advocating the use of Indian languages would make little difference. Appointments in the Indian Bureau were often political rather than educational decisions. Mrs. Horace Mann wrote in Sarah Winnemucca's (Paiute) autobiography,
The assassination of a president and the continued barrage of criticism led to civil service reform, which was introduced to Indian schools in the 1890s. However, the Civil Service Examination in the 1890s, like the National Teachers Examination today, tested for general knowledge rather than for competencies specific to the job applied for. Estelle Brown (1952) took the Civil Service Examination around 1901 expecting "to be tested on my fitness to teach children of a savage race to whom the word education was unknown and who were without knowledge of a written language. No such test was given" (p. 48). She had expected questions on tribal history and reservation conditions; she was not even told the tribe she was to teach. In effect, the Civil Service Examination, like the Pre-Professional Skills Test, National Teachers Examination, and state teacher competency tests of today, was designed, at best, for teachers of mainstream students. This cultural bias excluded many potential Indian teachers as well as a few "incompetent" white teachers while letting through teachers with little or no knowledge of Indians and Indian education. Low government salaries plus the isolation (from white communities) of many Indian schools, meant that the Indian Service was often the last resort for teachers who could not find employment elsewhere.
Luther Standing Bear (1928), a former Carlisle student and agency teacher from about 1884 to 1890, complained that the Civil Service examination was not necessary for primary teachers and that his students did better than the students of white teachers who got all their knowledge from books "but outside of that, they knew nothing." Standing Bear felt,
Twentieth Century criticism of Indian education
As boarding schools returned more and more students to reservations who seemed to blend back into the population rather than transform it, criticism of Indian education and especially boarding schools increased (Hoxie, 1984). Kluckhohn and Leighton reported that 95% of Navajo children "went home rather than to white communities, after leaving school, only to find themselves handicapped for taking part in Navajo life because they did not know the techniques and customs of their own people" (1962, p. 141). After World I, criticism of BIA. education increased. In 1923, John Collier, supported by the General Federation of Women's Clubs' Division of Indian Welfare, organized the American Indian Defense Association and, as its executive secretary, wrote a series of articles critical of the Indian Bureau. In an introductory heading to a 1923 Current History article on "America's Treatment of Her Indians," Collier (1923) declared that "the administration of Indian affairs [is] a national disgrace -- A policy designed to rob Indians of their property, destroy their culture and eventually exterminate them" (p. 771, emphasis in original). In Sunset Magazine he wrote, "The Indian problem embodies a world-wide problem, whether material civilization -- machinery and the dictates of machinery -- and selfish individualism shall dominate man or whether man shall dominate them, subordinate them and use them" (1923, p. 13).
In 1926 Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work asked the Institute for Government Research at John Hopkins University to investigate the governments treatment of Indians.. This study, carried on under the direction of Louis Meriam (1928), pointed out shocking conditions in boarding schools, recommended not sending elementary age children to boarding schools, and urged an increase in the number of day schools. It stated:
The start of World War II wiped out most of the gains made in Indian education under Collier as Congress reduced funding for BIA projects. Many Indians served in the armed forces during that war; the most famous of these soldiers were the Navajo code talkers who served in the South Pacific. Using a code based on their native language, they provided a secure means of communication for the Marines on Pacific islands. The Japanese never broke this code.
By the end of the World War II, a conservative reaction set in to Collier's policies. The House Select Committee to Investigate Indian Affairs and Conditions criticized community day schools in 1944 saying day school students suffered the,
It is estimated that for half of the Indians enrolled in Federal schools English is not the first language learned. Yet, when the child enters school, he is expected to function in a totally English-speaking environment. He muddles along in this educational void until he learns to assign meaning to the sounds the teacher makes. By the time he has begun to learn English, he has already fallen well behind in all the basic skill areas. In fact, it appears that his language handicap increases as he moves through school. And although it is no longer official BIA policy to discourage use of native languages, many reports in the hearings indicate the contrary in practice. (1969, p. 49)
With the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education, "separate but equal" schools for Blacks were declared unconstitutional. The treatment of all minorities in the United States received increased attention in the 1960s. At the end of the decade there were two major studies of Indian education. The government funded a National Study of American Indian Education (Fuchs & Havighurst, 1972) and the Special Senate Subcommittee on Indian Education (Special Subcommittee on Indian Education, 1969) held hearings on Indian education across the nation. These studies helped lead to the passage of the Indian Education Act, Title IV of P.L. 92-318, in 1972 to provide funds for special programs for Indian children in reservation schools and, for the first time, urban Indian students. This law, as amended in 1975, required committees of Indian parents to be involved in the planning of these special programs, encouraged the establishment of community-run schools, and stressed culturally relevant and bilingual curriculum materials (Szasz, 1977).
The raised consciousness of some educators resulting from the renewed interest in culturally appropriate education is shown by what the director of the BIA's Office of Education Programs wrote in 1971,
Navajos, in fact, have been excluded from the decision-making process in these school systems. The result has been a variety of education policies unrelated to the Navajo community. The Navajo language and culture have been largely ignored in the curriculum offered to Navajo students. (United States, 1975, pp. 126-127)
Many tribal leaders did not find schools, whether public or BIA, responsive to their demands for greater local control. In 1975 the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (Public Law 93-638) required the BIA to contract as many of its services to tribes as those tribes desired. The purpose of the Act was "to promote maximum Indian participation in the government and education of Indian people" and "to support the right of Indians to control their own educational activities" (Indian Education, 1982, p. 120).
An example of a successful 638 (self-determination) school operating today is Rock Point Community school in Arizona. Like Alfred L. Riggs' Santee Normal Training School, Rock Point Community School is not particularly representative of other schools of its time; however, Rock Point shows that bilingual/bicultural education can be successful for Native Americans. English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instruction began at Rock Point in 1960 and a maintenance bilingual education program began in 1967. The students at Rock Point, who begin reading instruction in Navajo and continue to receive instruction in Navajo as well as English through their school years, score better on English-language standardized tests than students in schools who receive all their instruction in English (Reyhner, 1990).
The rise of support for English-only instruction in this country is correlated with the rise and fall of the perceived threat to the "American way of life" by immigrants to this country and thus is a form of xenophobia. In the Nineteenth Century the imagined threat was from immigration of many Catholics from southern Europe and Ireland. The result for Indian education was the removal of government support for mission schools and an instructional emphasis on "Americanization." The teaching of Indian children fell into the hands of government employees who were selected through their ability to pass a general English language Civil Service examination rather than for any special knowledge of Indian education. These teachers were seldom encouraged to learn anything about their students' background and thus they remained alien to their students and the students' families. Vine Deloria, Jr.'s recently described these past European educational efforts as resembling,
Before non-Indian Americans insist on "Americanizing" Native Americans with "English-Only" instruction today, we need to examine thoroughly why the Nineteenth Century effort of Atkins, Morgan, and others failed. Moreover, we need to reexamine traditional attitudes toward freedom and self-determination that Americans so strongly advocated recently for minorities in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union while often ignoring these same basic human rights for America's indigenous minorities.
Non-Indian Americans need to respect Indian peoples rejection of the old assimilationist approach to Indian education that can be found in the recently passed educational policies of several tribes, including the Navajo (1985), the Northern Ute (1985), and the Pasqua Yaqui (1984). For example, Navajo Tribal leader Peterson Zah declared in the preface to the tribal education policies that,
Current nationwide educational reform movements tend to ignore linguistic and cultural issues and propose reforms that probably will hurt rather than help Indian education. For example, the effort to improve the quality of teachers by raising teacher certification standards is further reducing the relatively small number of Indians who become teachers. In addition, the current concern about common sense classroom issues such as "basic skills" and "time on task" found in school improvement programs such as the "Effective Schools" movement (Office of Indian Education Programs, 1988) usually fails to address the essential question of why students are unmotivated and uninterested in current classroom tasks. For example, Indian students report dropping out of school more because of boredom and because their teachers do not care about them rather than because of academic failure or problems with alcohol (Platero, 1986; Deyhle, 1989).
The present government policy of self-determination for Indian tribes fits well with the democratic and libertarian philosophy expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Policy makers and educators would be better advised to focus on promoting and testing instructional practices that have shown promise for Indian students because the practices allow for cultural variation and reinforce strengths of American Indian cultures. Attempts to repeat past government policies that called for wholesale replacement of Indian cultures with "American" culture that were tried in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries violate basic human rights, do not make educational sense, and hold little promise for success.
1This paper is a further development of ideas first presented in a chapter on the history of Indian education (Eder & Reyhner, 1988) and in A History of Indian Education (Reyhner & Eder, 1989), which was later expanded and published as American Indian Education: A History by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2004. I would like to thank the Newberry Library for providing me with a short-term fellowship during the summer of 1990 that allowed me to do much of the additional research on the history of the repression of American Indian languages that is included in this paper. A version of this paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the History of Education Society at Decatur, Georgia, on November 3, 1990, and excerpts are included in the author's Teaching American Indian Students (University of Oklahoma Press, 1992).
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