Stolen Tongues

BODY OF WORDS summer guest blog series, post 1.

by Allison Taylor-Adams

One isn’t born with feelings of shame and a lack of self-confidence about one’s language.  Where do they come from?[i]

All languages change.  Every language spoken today is the daughter of some now silent ancestor, related but different.  Languages morph, split, and combine; they ebb and flow.  Some languages come to prominence for a time and slowly fade, while others are only ever spoken by a tight-knit few and then slip away.

Languages have a natural life cycle, which sometimes ends in death.  Linguists and language activists accept this.  What we can’t accept is the unprecedented, unwarranted and completely unnatural rate of extinction of the languages currently spoken on our earth.  It is simply not the case that thousands of languages are in danger of annihilation because of slow evolution, expediency, or speakers’ choices.  Instead, the current crisis we are facing stems from widespread and deliberate policies of linguistic extermination.

Because languages are such strong representatives and repositories of cultural and community identity, they have historically been targeted for destruction in the name of “assimilation.”

*               *                  *

As white American settlers pushed further into Native American lands throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the young American government instituted a series of policies to deal with the communities that stood in the way.  “Indian removal” and forced resettlement on reservations uprooted the indigenous from their lands.  But missionaries, government officials, and self-styled philanthropists also saw the need to “civilize” the Native Americans, whom they saw as wild, backwards people, and so Bible translations and education programs were undertaken with fervor.  In many cases, these policies uprooted the indigenous from their cultures.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School (1879-1918) was a boarding school for American Indian children in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It was the first off-reservation boarding school.

The most demonstrative of these cases is the development of the off reservation boarding school.  The first of these schools was founded in 1879 by an Army officer who famously proclaimed, “Kill the Indian…save the man.”  The objective of these schools was to save the Indians from themselves; that is, from their Indian-ness.  A Bureau of Indian Affairs agent stressed in his report about the Ute Indians in Utah and Colorado in 1886 that there were a “number of handsome, bright-eyed children here, typical little savages…their faces hideously painted, growing up in all the barbarism of their parents.”  The only hope for these people was to take these little children by the hand, to care for and to nurture them, and to turn them into “refined, cultured, educated being[s]”.[ii]  The BIA agreed.

Upon arrival at boarding school, Native American children were forced to cut their long braids, give up their traditional clothing, and – importantly – to stop speaking their languages.  Even seemingly superficial modifications proved difficult.  Children and teachers alike were bewildered by the process of selecting “Christian” names, and haircutting often inspired resistance, truancy, and once, at the Pine Ridge Boarding School, a “mad flight” out of the building and towards home.[iii]  Eliminating the languages was far trickier.  Children naturally spoke with one another in their mother tongues. Certainly most, if not all, of the first arrivals to these schools knew not one word of English.  One can imagine the compounding trauma these children must have endured, having just been sent away from home, stripped of their clothing and their long hair, now being taught and cajoled and threatened in a completely alien language. “Speaking Indian” became a punishable offense.

*               *                  *

“Teaching an Indian youth in his own barbarous dialect is a positive detriment to him.  The first step to be taken toward civilization…is to teach them the English language.” -Commissioner of Indian Affairs John D.C. Atkins[iv]

In his provocatively titled book, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, David Wallace Adams is careful to point out that “ ‘abusive language, ridicule, corporal punishment, or any other cruel or degrading measures’” were expressly prohibited by the Rules for the Indian School Service.[v]  The gap between policy and practice, however, was wide and destructive.

Students who dared to speak one of their languages were made to brush their teeth with lye until their mouths were raw.  Others were forced to use soap, as if the native words were so filthy that the children needed to be cleansed of them.  One former boarding school student said that “Whenever I speak Tlingit, I can still taste the soap.”[vi]  Some students fared even worse.  A former boarding school teacher reminisces in her memoirs about laying thirty-five kindergarteners – “like little sardines” she says – across tables and spanking them for speaking Mohave.[vii]

The punishments were not just physical.  For speaking their “barbarous dialects”, American Indian students in boarding schools were humiliated, mocked, and threatened; made to sit in the corner or held back in school; made the object of ridicule by their teachers and classmates.

Whole generations of indigenous American speakers had their languages literally beaten from their bodies and scrubbed from their mouths.

*               *                  *

Where the physical damage stopped, the psychological damage continues to take its toll.  These generations of Native Americans came out of school believing that their languages were shameful, inferior, and useless.  This message had been so successfully ingrained in these students that in 1881, a mere two years after he founded the first off-reservation boarding school, Colonel Pratt received a sorrowful letter from a little girl, confessing to speaking one Indian word.  “I felt so sorry that I could not eat my supper,” wrote the Sioux child, “and I could not forget that Indian word, and while I was sitting at the table the tears rolled down my cheeks.”[viii]

Having been denied the possibility of taking their languages with them into their adulthood, many believed (along with their educators) that languages like Tlingit and Mohave were relics of a dying past.  Indigenous language maintenance, for these traumatized speakers, was not only impossible, it didn’t even seem desirable.  Even if these former students returned back to their communities, the likelihood that they would teach their children the languages of their grandparents was slim to none.

And lest we are tempted to believe that these practices are just bad memories from our sad past, it is important to note that these boarding schools, and their anti-native languages policies, were in operation well into the 20th century.  Small wonder, then, that perhaps 25% of the languages indigenous to the US are already extinct, and almost all of the rest are endangered.

This is not how languages play out their lives “naturally.”  And to my mind, there is something not only completely unnatural but profoundly unjust about that language landscape of the US.

*               *                  *

The story of American Indian boarding schools is just one of myriad stories we could tell.  Aboriginal Canadians had very similar boarding school experiences.  Aboriginal Australians arguably fared even worse. There are even examples of corporal punishment and humiliation being used to stamp out indigenous languages in colonized Africa.[ix]

These are some of the stories that we know about.  There are most likely many more that we will never get to hear.  In many places of the world where there were once stories, songs, and voices, there is now nothing but silence.

[i] Crystal, D. (2000).  Language death. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.   pg 84

[ii] Adams, D.W. (1995). Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1875-1928.  Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.   pg 19

[iii] Ibid, pg 102

[iv] Quoted in Lomawaima, K.T. & McCarty, T.L. (2006). To remain an Indian: Lessons in democracy from a century of Native American education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.  pg 134

[v] Adams, pg 122

[vi] Quoted in Crystal, pg 85

[vii] Adams, pg 141

[viii] Quoted in Adams, pg 141

[ix] Crystal, pg 85


ImageAUTHOR: Allison Taylor-Adams has Bachelor’s degrees in Religious Studies and Russian Language and Literature from the University of Oklahoma, and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She blogs about languages, language learning, and linguistic diversity at Polyglossic. She also loves lace knitting and hiking in the woods, both of which are activities that can conveniently be accomplished while also talking and thinking about languages.


EDITOR’S NOTE ON BLOG SERIES: Living Tongues Institute regularly encounters perspectives on language endangerment that we believe our blog readers would find thought-provoking, fascinating, debatable and challenging. This guest blog series, named BODY OF WORDS, is a forum for such opinions. The views expressed belong to the author and are not necessarily shared by everyone at Living Tongues Institute.


7 thoughts on “Stolen Tongues

  1. Pingback: Guest blog post for Living Tongues « polyglossic

  2. Great, well-researched post — thanks, Allison. Such a tragic and nasty history we sit upon. Looking forward to reading more from the guest bloggers!

  3. Thanks for an excellent resumé of the terrible experience Native people suffered through. Residential schools traumatized many First Nations children in Canada, and many books and novels have been written to document those times. One I can recommend is the novel, “Porcupines and China Dolls”, by Robert Arthur Alexie – painful but authentic and worth reading.
    I noticed you used the expression “white American settlers” in your essay; wouldn’t “European settlers” have been a more accurate and less racist way to refer to this group?

  4. They were white, and they were settling the Americas. In the late 18th and 19th centuries they were no longer European but white, American settlers. It’s perfectly accurate, and there’s nothing racist about that phrasing.

  5. In the USA, it is rather common to use the word “white” to refer to the settlers… whereas in Canada, it may not be as common, depending on the context. Mr. Daniaux hails from Canada, so that may be why was was not used to hearing settlers referred to in that way.

  6. Pingback: Boarding schools and Native American languages « polyglossic

  7. Pingback: Monday Inspiration: Lost Words documentary « polyglossic

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