Oklahoma: English-only Policy Diminishes Their American Indians Languages

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Mar 20 14:08:41 UTC 2007

American Indians in Oklahoma say English-only Policy Diminishes Their
Tribal Languages

By Associated Press Mar 19, 2007, 07:15


Legislation to make English the official language of the state of Oklahoma
has run into opposition from American Indians, who say their native
tongues are dying fast enough without any help from lawmakers. As Oklahoma
observes its centennial year, the English-only issue bring up divisions
that persist more than a century after American Indians were forcibly
marched to the region and then endured a series of land grabs. Many of
Oklahomas 37 federally recognized tribes are fighting to save their
languages and cultures from extinction years after the end of organized
efforts to stamp them out.

Critics of the English-only legislation point out that Oklahomas very name
is formed from two Choctaw Indian words okla and homma that mean red man.
If you go to English only, what are we going to call the state of
Oklahoma? asks Terry Ragan, director of the Choctaw Nations language
program. Even town names in the state will have to be named differently.
Supporters of the legislation say it could end bilingual state government
documents, such as drivers license tests, and force immigrants to learn
English and assimilate into American society.

English-only legislation has been adopted in 28 states, and measures are
pending in 12 others, says Rob Toonkel, the director of communications for
U.S. English, Inc. of Washington, D.C., an interest-group that supports
making English the nations official language. A similar measure has been
filed in Congress. According to Toonkel, 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.

Its very much an assimilation issue, he says. 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 Indian Territory to expunge tribal languages
and culture, says Kirke Kickingbird, an Oklahoma City attorney and member
of the Kiowa tribe. That whole era was really about assimilation, he says.

Chad Smith, principal chief of the 250,000-member Cherokee Nation, the
largest American Indian tribe in the United States, says the states image
is harmed when cultural differences are not embraced Theres a message sent
to those outside of Oklahoma that were intolerant, were colloquial and we
want to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world, he says. To our
tribes, it says that if theres an official language, your language is
secondary and all other languages are secondary, says Smith, who has also
criticized athletic teams using American Indian mascots and names.

Supporters point out that the legislation doesn't interfere with the
teaching or learning of American Indian languages. But critics say a
government policy 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. We have absolutely
nothing against English. Its great if people speak English, says Alice
Anderton, a former linguist at the University of Oklahoma and executive
director of the Intertribal Wordpath Society. But its great if people
speak English plus some other language of heritage.


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