Sunday, February 5, 2012

Keeping Languages Alive

I've been reading "Roots" by Alex Haley, I haven't read his name in Braille, and the book reader doesn't spell it. So I am sorry if I have spelled it wrong. If you can bear it, I recommend getting this book on audio, read by Avery Brooks. He is an Amazing oral interpreter! He sings the songs, creates different voices for characters, and is a delight to listen to, whether acting the part of Captain Sisco on "Deep Space Nine" or interpreting this book beyond words.

I was fortunate in having an African American adult friend when I was in high school who got me interested in "black history" and writers. So most of the details in this book, the hells of slavery and bigotry aren't new to me.

What strikes me is how language is saved, down the generations. Each language has its' own worldview inherent in what might be called the "inside meaning" of the words. It informs the native speaker or careful student about how speakers of the language view their world and the world of others.

I will be interested to learn if the bits of language and culture preserved by the people followed in "Roots" helps the author trace back his ancestry to the original homeland of the Gambia.

Examples of what I mean: In Cherokee the original word for Christmas can be roughly translated as, "When they shoot off firecrackers." This lets us know that this was a Christmas tradition in the Southeastern U.S. or in Oklahoma, where the Southeastern tribes who couldn't hide were force marched.

I once heard a discussion among Native American women who were lesbians about the attitudes of their tribes toward them and homosexuality in general. Of course attitudes varied. But what Each woman refered to in explaining tribal attitudes was her Native language. I remember one woman saying she asked her brother how to say lesbian in their language. It translated out in English to, "a special kind of woman." When she asked her brother how a gay man would be referred to it was "a special kind of man." Of course, not all Native nations were this accepting and the introduction of Christianity has had a strong negative influence on those people who were formerly more accepting.

After listening to "Roots" for several hours I decided to check my E-mail and found the message below. I was so angry, between the horrors the characters and real people in "Roots" were going through and the deprivation of a Native American child's Right to speak her Own language, I went Roaring around the house for a while, couldn't sleep.

So, here it is.

- What's love got to do with it? Not much, especially if you say the words "I love
you" in the Menominee language in front of a certain Wisconsin teacher.
Seventh grader Miranda Washinawatok, Menominee, found this out.
Miranda speaks two languages: Menominee and English. She also plays on her basketball
team. However, two Thursdays ago she was suspended for one basketball game because
she spoke Menominee to a fellow classmate during class.
Miranda attends Sacred Heart Catholic Academy in Shawano, Wisconsin. The school body
is over 60 percent American Indian. The school is approximately six miles from the
south border of the Menominee Indian Tribe Reservation.
"On January 19 I was told by Miranda she was being benched from playing that night.
I found out at 4:20 and we were back at school at 6:30 pm so I could get to the bottom
of why she could not play,"
said Tanaes Washinawatok, Miranda's mother.
"Miranda kept saying she was only told by her assistant coach she was being benched
because two teachers said she had a bad attitude. I wanted to know what she did to
make them say she had a bad attitude."
At the school, the teachers and coaching staff seemed to want to cast blame on each
other, according to Miranda's mother.
"I wanted to talk to the principal, but he was not there before the game started,"
stated Tanaes Washinawatok. Being a persistent concerned parent, Washinawatok was
back at the school by 7:30 the next morning to speak to the principal.
The principal told Washinawatok that the assistant coach told him she was told by
two teachers to bench Miranda for attitude problems.
The alleged 'attitude problem' turned out to be that Miranda said the Menominee word
“posoh” that means “hello” and said “Ketapanen”
in Menominee that means "I love you."
Miranda and a fellow classmate were talking to each other when Miranda told her how
to say "Hello" and "I love you" in Menominee.
"The teacher went back to where the two were sitting and literally slammed her hand
down on the desk and said, "How do I know you are not saying something bad?"
The story did not end there. In the next session, another teacher told Miranda she
did not appreciate her getting the other teacher upset because "she is like a daughter
to me."
By the time, Miranda was picked up by her mother she was upset for being suspended.
"Miranda knows quite a bit of the Menominee language. We speak it. My mother, Karen
Washinawatok, is the director of the Language and Culture Commission of the Menominee
Tribe. She has a degree in linguistics from the University of Arizona's College of
Education-AILDI American Indian Language Development Institute. She is a former tribal
chair and is strong into our culture,"
states Tanaes Washinawatok.
Washinawatok has had a total of three meetings with school officials and was promised
Miranda would receive a public apology, as would the Menominee Tribe, and the apologies
would be publically placed.
"On Wednesday, a letter was sent to parents and guardians. A real generic letter
of apology, that really did not go into specifics as to why there was this apology,"
Washinawatok told the Native News Network Thursday evening.
"I still don't think it was enough,"
Sacred Heart Catholic Academy is operated by the Diocese of Green Bay, which ironically
has an option on its answering machine for Spanish, but not Menominee. A call put
in late Thursday afternoon by the Native News Network was not returned by press time.

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