Genocide: Language Acquisition As Slow Extermination

by Gerard Donnelly Smith

February 16, 2004   


When a child acquires language that child also acquires cultural meaning, gains access to an epistemology and way to code and decode secrets, to posit and solve mysteries, to create and justly administer laws, and to a receive vision, then record and safeguard the myth.

Those who control which language is acquired or accessed, also control access to and the acquisition of the knowledge compiled by speakers of that language. If one suppresses acquisition of a native tongue, one suppresses the mental capacity of the native speaker who will be unable to function in that indigenous society because he/she cannot decipher, nor even comprehend the spoken or written word. Though the child may have a healthy and perhaps even productive life, the suppression of her/his language skills would have serious consequences for her/his mental capacity. Similarly, the suppression of the indigenous language by the dominant, conquering culture reduces the ability of the native speaker within his/her own culture: the child will have no way to access the knowledge of his/her own people. The child will be damaged because of this denial. Communicative parents, those good storytellers, those patient instructors of language, bestow not only language skills, but also communicate love, exhibit trust, provide encouragement, not only with distinctive cultural sounds, but also distinctive cultural facial expressions. The indigenous child forced to learn only the dominant culture's language suffers grievous mental harm. Grievous because the bond between parent and child, between child and grandparents, between child and ancestors, and tradition, and her/his "own" people's history is destroyed, in all probability, beyond reclaiming.

Making the damage worse, the dominant culture assumes that by learning its language, the child will become a fully functioning member of the dominant society. Yet the child can never fully be a citizen of the dominant culture's society. Her physical appearance still retains the negative stereotypes that were used to justify the suppression of her people, through the suppression of their language (and all the cultural rituals and stories it contained). She represents, to the public, a representative citizen of their culture, but an inferior assimilation, one who many assume will never speak or write the dominant language well. Simply the society to which she has been forced to belong has already terminated her true image. If she does decide to pursue studies in her own language and culture, her understanding will be truncated by her tainted way of knowing. For she was not only denied a childhood access to her people's language, her brain was wired to interpret the world through the dominant culture's eyes. Her mental ability to fully access the language of her parents has been damaged: she must always work through the filter of that first epistemology which may have placed within her notions, assumptions and ideas which are anathema to her indigenous way of knowing. She will never be whole in her own language.

Thus, one can argue that suppressing the acquisition of language also provides a method for slowly exterminating the speakers of that language. Its speakers, without their language, lose the ability to communicate in ways expressly their own, lose the ability to express their relationship with nature, with each other, and with others that are uniquely their own; moreover, they lose the ability to pass down the histories, legends and sacred myths as these cultural legacies were originally conceived, through a unique way of knowing. Once the last natural, mono-lingual speaker of a language dies, then that culture loses the last unfiltered indigenous experience. Little by little, the bilingual descendants, forced to speak the dominant language first will lose the ability to express themselves in ways that do not use the dominant language's paradigms, its metaphors and its symbols. In other words, if no one speaks only "Blackfoot," then no one would have been raised in expressly "Blackfoot" ways. Any future interpretation of reality, of mythology, of language itself would be compromised by the dominant filter. Being a polyglot does not mean that the people themselves necessarily will be lost; however, if the monolingual speakers all die, then no single person who understands only a "Blackfoot" way of life will be left to interpret Blackfoot culture from a "pristine" Blackfoot perspective.

Such a situation constitutes damage to the Blackfoot mind, not only on an individual level, but also on a collective level. For if the brain is not a tabula rasa at birth, and we indeed do inherit a predisposition to acquire our parent's language, then the dominant culture has damaged the collective mind of the people: causing serious mental harm. Causing "mental or bodily" harm to an ethnic group is defined as a crime of genocide. Certainly, forcing Native American children to learn English while severely punishing them for speaking their own tongue falls under this definition of "mental harm." Furthermore, the removal of the children from their villages, kidnapping them from their parents, and transporting them hundreds if not thousands of miles to religious or government run residential schools causes "serious mental harm." Breaking the parent/child bond has been clearly shown to cause the child long-term psychological damage.

The continued forcing of indigenous children to learn English-first, or English-only, is the most significant threat to the long-term survival of indigenous culture and indigenous ways of knowing. Considering such practice a form of genocide should not be viewed as illogical or irrational, when the dominant cultures in Canada and the United States still maintain laws that call for the eventual full assimilation of indigenous cultures. Assimilation restricts language acquisition for the Native American population to English-first: restriction that guarantees an expressly "Judeo/Christian" or Western epistemology dominates the indigenous culture. For many indigenous peoples, the speaking of English-only is the greatest threat to their survival. The speaking of the native tongue only -- by at least some members of the culture -- is the only way to ensure its survival.

When a child acquires language that child also acquires cultural meaning, gains access to an epistemology and way to code and decode secrets, to posit and solve mysteries, to create and justly administer laws, and to receive a vision, then record and safeguard the myth.

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Native Americans on Swans


Gerard Donnelly Smith, a poet and musician, teaches creative writing, literature and composition at Clark College in Vancouver WA. CERRO de la ESTRELLA (Logan Elm Press, 1992) was chosen for The Governor's Award for the Arts in Ohio, 1992. Excerpts from THE AMERICAN CORPSE (10 poems) were published in Apex of the M in 1995. He is the current director of the Columbia Writers Series, an Honorary Board Member of The Mountain Writers Series, and co-advisor of the Native American Student Council at Clark College. He has also organized readings for Poets Against the War.

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Published February 16, 2004
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