Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Does keeping Native languages alive even matter? Part 3

I've loved seeing the great comments left by my previous two posts on the question of language revitilzation and extinction. Here's the third installment in this subject I could go on and on (and seemingly have) about, and discussion of the many arguments I've heard against keeping Native languages alive:

"We're all Americans now!" - or "Why do we have to dwell on the past?"

This is possibly one of the more frustrating arguments for me, personally, mostly because it's not an argument with anything except an attitude of "This is how I want it to be" behind it, and not trying to understand what's actually going on.

While the oft-cited "Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it" comes to mind, it is a woman who was in the same school my grandmother was that I think of when this is the argument.

You see, I was pretty hard-headed myself about language, only in a different way. I did not think much of my grandparents "giving up" their language. I mean, in exactly one generation, they'd "decided" to give it up. They chose to not pass it on to their children, who in turn could NOT pass it on to me!

But then I heard this woman tell her story, the story of what happened when she went to school. She said what I'd heard before, but I'd never heard it from someone who experienced it, much less someone who experienced it in the same school, at the same time as my grandma. These children, five and six years old, were beaten for speaking Tlingit. They were whipped if they uttered it. Try to imagine yourself at five years old, speaking how you speak at home, and getting hit.

But then she said, "The smart ones got hit the most." And they learned to undo it the fastest.

The "smart ones" - the natural leaders, the ones not afraid to speak out... at least at first. These are the ones most cruelly treated, and the ones who were most dead-set on not passing on that kind of cruelty to their children.

Could you, having gone through this experience, have sent your five year old to kindergarten knowing how to speak the language you were beaten for speaking? I don't know that I would.

It is in this light I remember that the past is not irrelevant. And forgive me if it also brings to mind a certain animated movie in which there may or may not have been big musical numbers with warthogs and hyenas. Remember in the "Lion King" when Simba tells the monkey it's in the past, and the monkey whacks him on the head? Yeah, the past still hurts.

Okay, searing political insight it may not be, but I would hope the next person who talks about forgetting the past or "just being American" keeps in mind how hurtful those comments can be. I'm proud to be American, and I think speaking the tongue that was spoken here for millenia is an incredibly patriotic thing to do. I wish I knew more, I wish I was committed enough to be bilingual, and I don't see how my nation could be anything but benefitted by me and my children and my children's children being the same.

And how can I forget the past that brought me to where I am today? Why would I want to? What's more, why would we, as a nation want to forget that? If it makes you uncomfortable, if it makes you sad, or feel ashamed - fine. It makes me feel those things too. But if we forget the things that make us uncomfortable, we must also forget that which makes us proud, and comforted, and passionate. The brief discomfort I may feel by remembering all the true history of our not-so-distant past is a small price to pay for that.


Whoa, Baby! said...

Yes it matters. Language is the core of a culture. Tribal languages must be preserved.

Roy Mitchell said...

Gunalchéesh! Chin'an!