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Around the campfire

Assimilation in Indian country

From the earliest days of U.S. colonial history, the announced goal of government, entrepreneurs and religious leaders has been the salvation of the savages. Their goal has been to ''save'' the savage Indians by making them over into white people.

The colony at Jamestown was founded to bring religion to the Natives. Never mind that they already had religion. It wasn't good enough for the English saviors. The colony at Plymouth Rock was founded on the same premise. The salvation of the savages was written into both charters. Never mind that what they really wanted was gold and riches. Becoming rich was not legit; saving heathens and sending them to heaven was.

When that happens, there will be no more ''Indian problem.'' Indians will just be brown white people. Captain Pratt, the founder of the famous Carlisle Indian School, had as his famous motto, ''Kill the Indian and save the man.''

But a long line of non-Indian people, including President Grant, President Lincoln, all the Secretaries of the Interior before 1950 and all the BIA commissioners until recently, have wanted the assimilation of Indians. Only Indians have wanted to preserve their culture.

After the passage of the ordinance banning the practice of Indian religions in 1883, Native culture and religion went underground. Sitting Bull, Manuelito, Cochise, Geronimo and hundreds of other Indian leaders had to be careful of their actions. For his participation in the Ghost Dance, the Indian police and the Army assassinated Sitting Bull.

That was a plain warning to other Indian leaders all over the United States. Despite the tight restrictions on travel by Indians, there was a lot of contact between reservations. Fifteen Lakota leaders had traveled all the way from South Dakota to Nevada to meet and talk with Wovoka, the originator of the Ghost Dance.

Indian kids got the crap beaten out of them if they talked in their Native languages in school. They and their parents were jailed if they got caught practicing the peyote religion, the Ghost Dance, the Sun Dance and other Native religions.

And the movement for assimilation may be winning. According to two books published by Northern Arizona University, only 30 of the 350 Native languages are alive and being spoken. These 30 are in danger of being lost within one or two generations. It is ironic that many of my friends who are pushing language preservation speak only English at home with their children.

There are cases today of Navajo kids who can barely speak to their grandparents. The grandparents are fluent in Navajo but know little English. The parents don't want their children to speak Navajo because they don't want them to have to go through what they went through in the boarding schools or the public schools. So the children speak only English, and understand only a few words of Navajo.

I can't begin to say how many Indian young people I have met who say they can understand a little bit of Apache or Navajo or Lakota, but can't speak it.

The assimilation of Indians was the official policy of the United States from 1867 until 1991. The leading Protestant denominations met in Philadelphia and developed the policy.

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President Grant accepted it wholly. Put Indians on reservations, capture their children and hold them hostage in boarding schools, and teach them in English only. Make farmers and housewives out of the parents, forbid them to travel off the reservation, give them just enough rations to live on and keep the Indian police and the Army handy to keep them in line.

Oh, by the way, kill off those 50 million buffalo so they won't have any animals to hunt. By 1888, the buffalo were almost gone.

Despite the century and a quarter of oppression, Indian people are still proud to practice their religions, speak their languages and practice their customs. Indian people say that without their language, life would not be worth living.

More and more language preservation programs are appearing in Indian country. They include Blackfeet, Lakota, Mohawk, Washoe, Umon Hon (Omaha), Seneca and Navajo. There is now even a National Alliance to Save Native Languages, with headquarters in Washington, D.C. And, of course, the bilingual education movement in Indian country is largely about preserving Native languages.

Congress passed the Native American Languages Act, largely the work of my mentor Patricia Locke (Flying Earth), in 1990. This act reversed the former suppressive policy of assimilation, but many people still believe assimilation is the right thing to do. Teachers are still punishing Indian students for speaking their languages.

Locke did more than just about anyone to maintain Native languages. When no one else was talking about it, in the 1960s and early '70s, she launched what would become the Native American Languages Institute. That organization is still going strong today, and is located in Santa Fe, N.M.

Old ways die hard. In 1977, I wrote a proposal for Humboldt State that would have established the first Native bilingual teacher education program. OBEMLA kicked the proposal back. They said it was aimed at language restoration, not preservation, and was not eligible.

In the meantime, they changed the rules, and the next year they accepted the proposal and funded it for three years. My good friend Tom Parsons, who ran the Center for Community Development at HSU for a quarter of a century, ran the program for the next six years in conjunction with the School of Education.

My question is: Will language restoration or preservation programs work? In a study I did for the Jicarilla Apache Nation 10 years ago, we found that 65 percent of people over the age of 50 were fluent in Apache. In the age group 30 - 50, however, the percentage dropped to 20 percent. Those under 30 had only 1.8 percent fluent in Apache. Those were two kids being raised by a grandmother.

In another study I did on Navajo 20 years ago, more than 70 percent of parents said they wanted their children educated in English only. They refused to speak Navajo at home because they did not want their children to suffer the way they had suffered.

The big question is: What will happen to Indian people if all our languages die out? Will Congress, the president, the religious leaders and the big business people still say we are Indians? Or will we be just brown white people?

Dr. Dean Chavers is the director of Catching the Dream (formerly the Native American Scholarship Fund), a scholarship and school improvement program in Albuquerque, N.M. Mellen Press published his book ''Modern American Indian Leaders'' in June 2007. His address is He welcomes your comments and welcomes Native students to apply for college scholarships. Catching the Dream recently published his three books: the ''National Indian Grant Directory'' (two volumes) and ''Reading for College.''

Copyright (c) 2008.