As a Native American of Mohawk and Odawa descent, I am often introduced to individuals who share my heritage. Recently I was introduced to a co-worker’s wife who recalled her visit to the Carlisle Indian School. She spoke of her anguish at seeing where one her great relative’s had attended school. This introduction made me realize that I am the first generation in my family not to attend a forced boarding school administered through government sponsorship or Mission schools. I am also the first generation to never have learned my tribe’s language. I believe steps must be taken to reinstate the language back into our culture to be preserved and passed on to the next generation.
The most infamous of boarding schools is the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which my grandmother attended. The premise behind this military type school was to assimilate the children into the American culture. They were forbidden from speaking or even thinking in their own language or suffer the discipline of being beaten with a leather belt. My grandmother stubbornly held on to her language, only to have her children taken from her and enrolled in a boarding school to undo her language teachings.
At the age of five, my mother was taken from the Onondaga reservation in upstate New York and forced to live in and attend the Thomas Indian School, 200 miles from her home. She had her mouth washed out with soap, made to stand in a dark closet or had her knuckles hit with a ruler whenever she spoke her native Mohawk language. When she left the school years later, she only spoke a few native works.
Growing up on the family farm in northern Michigan, my father was required to attend Holy Childhood, the local Catholic boarding school in Harbor Springs, Michigan. He was allowed to go home during the summer months to help on the farm, so he was able to retain the Ottawa-Chippewa (now Odawa) language, even if he could only speak it among family. He too could not speak his native language at school or would face punishment. After leaving Holy Childhood, the fear of speaking his own language still haunted my father and it was not passed on. The family was taught that it was better to ignore their language and become Americanized rather than be ignored and isolated.
Past generations suffered the loss of their language in silence. Today, tribes are engaging every means at their disposal to preserve and teach tribal members their own language, from recruiting elders who are an invaluable source for learning the pure language to posting lessons on the Internet to reach more tribal members.
The history of how our language was almost destroyed must not be forgotten, but rather serve as a catalyst to move forward with the future. I believe it is up to me along with the tribe’s efforts to have our language once again become a vital part of the culture.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.