American Indians Say English Only Policy Diminishes Tribal Languages

Sunday, March 11th 2007, 12:55 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ As he visits public schools and colleges where his native Choctaw Indian language is taught, Terry Ragan is as likely to greet people with ``Halito! Chim achukma?'' as he is with its English equivalent: ``Good morning! How are you?''

The state's very name is a Choctaw word meaning land of the red people, and many of Oklahoma's 37 federally recognized tribes are fighting to save native tongues from extinction years after the end of organized efforts to stamp out their languages and cultures.

That's why English-only legislation pending in the Oklahoma Legislature and directed primarily at Hispanic immigrants has been so distasteful to American Indian leaders in this, Oklahoma's centennial year.

The bill points up divisions that continue to exist more than a century after Indians were force-marched to the state and given land, only to see it taken away by settlers _ an event re-enacted every year by schoolchildren across the state.

``If you go to English only, what are we going to call the state of Oklahoma?'' said Ragan, a former school superintendent and director of the Choctaw Nation's language program. ``Even town names in the state will have to be named differently.

``With that type of thinking, we're going to have to change a whole lot of things.''

Supporters of English-only legislation say it could eventually end bilingual state government documents, such as driver's license tests, and force Latino and Asian immigrants to learn English and assimilate into American society.

English-only legislation has been adopted in 28 states and measures are pending in 12 states, said Rob Toonkel, director of communications for U.S. English, Inc. of Washington, D.C. A similar measure has been filed in Congress.

The national English only movement does not want to deprive American Indians of their native languages but is aimed at standardizing government documents into a single language as a symbol of unity for immigrant populations.

``It's very much an assimilation issue,'' Toonkel said. ``We should make sure they become part of the country.''

But assimilation is a charged word for many American Indians, whose ancestors were forced from their traditional lands and sent on the Trail of Tears in the 19th century.

English-only restrictions were imposed in what was then known as Indian Territory to expunge tribal languages and culture, said Kirke Kickingbird, an Oklahoma City attorney and member of the Kiowa tribe.

``That whole era was really about assimilation,'' he said.

Indian men were forced to cut their hair and change their clothes and Indian children were herded off to boarding schools away from the influence of their parents.

Even the unassigned lands set aside for Indian tribes were eventually carved up for settlement in land runs beginning in 1889, events that led to Oklahoma's statehood in 1907.

Every year, school children throughout the state dress up as pioneers and stage pretend land runs to learn about the state's history.

Organizers of a year-long centennial celebration said it would unite Oklahomans, but some tribal leaders said they feel alienated.

``We're just not going to celebrate it in our nation,'' said A.D. Ellis, principal chief of the 55,000-thousand-member Muscogee Nation.

``I think they should respect the Indian people of Oklahoma,'' Ellis said. ``They should respect that part we played in making the state of Oklahoma. This is a native American state.''

Chad Smith, chief of the 250,000-thousand member Cherokee Nation, the largest American Indian tribe in the United States, said the state's image is harmed when cultural differences are not embraced.

``There's a message sent to those outside of Oklahoma that we're intolerant, we're colloquial and we want to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world,'' Smith said.

``To our tribes it says that if there's an official language, your language is secondary and all other languages are secondary,'' said Smith, who has also been an outspoken critic of use of Indian mascots and names by athletic teams.

Bill Anoatubby, governor of the 38,000-member Chickasaw Nation, said language is a fundamental aspect of any culture.

``Oklahoma is a unique state born from and formed by a variety of cultures,'' Anoatubby said. ``The English only bill ignores the very fabric that makes up the framework of what is Oklahoma.''

Wyman Kirk, a member of the Cherokee tribe and director of a four-year degree program in the Cherokee language at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., said he believes the English only proposal is a waste of politicians' time.

``We don't have to worry about people not learning English,'' Kirk said.

Supporters point out that the legislation includes language to prevent it from interfering with the teaching or learning of American Indian languages. But critics said a government policy on language could impede efforts to revive tribal languages.

The Intertribal Wordpath Society, a nonprofit group based in Norman, Okla., estimates that only about 9,000 people are fluent in the Cherokee language and 4,000 in the Choctaw language.

Fewer than a dozen people are fluent in other American Indian languages, including those of the Osage, Pawnee and Chiricahua Apache tribes, according to the group.

Kirk said that lack of understanding, or ``uhnigvga'' in Cherokee, may be at the heart of the policy.

``Anything new tends to scare people,'' Kirk said. ``If anything, I think people probably need to be exposed to more languages.''

Alice Anderton, a former linguist at the University of Oklahoma and executive director of the Intertribal Wordpath Society, said a xenophobic fear that immigrants will somehow change society may be to blame for the policy.

``We feel it's fine for everyone to speak English, but its also important for people to speak other languages,'' Anderton said. She said English only policies are divisive and exclude people from other cultures.

``This whole idea of English uniting us is bogus,'' Anderton said. ``The truth is people are divided by a thousand things _ different politics, different religions.''

``We have absolutely nothing against English. It's great if people speak English,'' she said. ``But it's great if people speak English plus some other language of heritage.''