OKLAHOMA CITY - In Oklahoma, lone Native American voices are raised in the battle to maintain the right to keep Native American languages from becoming extinct.
Fannie Bates of Oklahoma City is one of those voices. When Bates began hearing about attempts to put an English-only referendum on the state's November ballot, she was shocked. With 30 tribes in Oklahoma, she saw the ramifications of allowing an English only law to pass.
Bates started doing her homework on the issue and, on those who were pushing it. What Bates found was not a grass-roots movement by some Oklahomans to make English the only recognized language in the state, but a huge political machine with a big-name board of advisors, sophisticated lobbyists and attorneys.
"I am part Cherokee, but I lived in the heart of the Choctaw Nation. As a child I spoke Choctaw, sang in Choctaw and carried around my little Choctaw hand doll in my purse as a little girl, so I know how important the Native languages are," Bates said. "I'm pretty well educated and I realized how serious this would be, the vast implications it would have. I know that all of our Native languages are in danger of extinction. This law encourages that extinction."
The petition effort failed, falling short of signatures required to make it on the ballot this year. But Bates took action anyway. She filed a protest and then a brief with the Supreme Court of Oklahoma, asking for a decision on the issue. The Cherokee Nation filed a brief supporting Bates.
What differs in these briefs filed with the Oklahoma Supreme Court, and those filed in other states, is that both Bates and the Cherokee Nation turned to Oklahoma law and stated that English-Only would conflict with existing federal law.
The Cherokee Nation brief point out that the Enabling Act, (24 Stat. 267-268 ? 1), which allowed the admission of Oklahoma and Indian Territory as a state, holds: "That the inhabitants of...the Territory of Oklahoma and the Indian Territory... may adopt a constitution and become the State of Oklahoma, as hereinafter provided: Provided, that nothing contained in the said constitution shall be construed to limit or impair the rights of persons or property pertaining to the Indians of said Territories (so long as such rights shall remain unextinguished) or to limit or affect the authority of the Government of the United States to make any law or regulation respecting such Indians, their lands, property or other rights ..."
"I hope they find in favor of us on those grounds," Bates said. "But you can never tell with this court. They have to decide that it is unconstitutional on its face. If they don't find it is unconstitutional on its face, it will go for a vote and it will pass and it will become law."
John Parris, legal intern for the Cherokee Nation who worked on the brief, said, "It (the English-only issue) requires that all government operations have to be conducted in English. We felt that if our congressman, Brad Carson, D District 2, (a Cherokee), wants to come and speak to our Chief Chad Smith, they should be able to do so in their own language."
Parris went on to say that if an English-only law were passed in Oklahoma, it would prohibit officials from using any language other than English unless they could be specially exempted from it through a narrow interpretation of the law.
Bates said that in a recent hearing before the Oklahoma Supreme Court, the attorney sent by English Inc., a national organization, tried to provoke an argument between the two sides while in the courtroom.
"He tried to treat us like dogs," Bates said. "He tried to run us off. He kept repeatedly telling us how stupid we were in this hearing. He kept repeating how ignorant our comments were and how they didn't make any sense and how stupid and ignorant we were ... to try to get us to go away. He targeted me. He tried to pick a fight with me in front of the Supreme Court. I knew he was trying to intimidate me. This is serious stuff, they have millions of dollars invested in this and they don't want to mess it up."
As the David and Goliath battle ensues in the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Bates has become a self-styled American Indian Paul Revere working feverishly to get the word out to Indian country and beyond. English-only propositions throughout the country are gaining momentum and Bates fears they are nothing more than a patriotic smoke screen for racism.
She was able to determine that a company based in Washington, D.C., was behind the English-only push in Oklahoma.
"Their name is English Inc. and they have been in business for about eighteen years," Bates said. "Their sole purpose is to force the English language down the throats of Americans and to take away people's other languages. It has nothing to do with the state of Oklahoma. We had a forum and we couldn't get anyone to come forward and say they were for this."
Bates added there was another large company, similar to English Inc., based out of the Silicon Valley in California.
English Inc. has a Web site on which it explains its mission. The company was founded in 1983 by former Sen. S.I Hayakawa, D-Hawaii, and boasts an advisory board, which includes: Ambassador Walter Annenberg; Saul Bellow; Alistair Cooke; Denton Cooley, M.D., former Sen. Joseph Corcoran; Charleton Heston; David Horowitz; Lee Majors; Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy; Laura McKenzie; James Schlesinger; Arnold Schwarzenegger; Charles E. Scripps; Karl Shapiro; and Norman D. Shumway; W. Clement Stone; Togo Tanaka and Alex Trebek and other prominent names.
The company's lists as its current chairman-CEO is Mauro E. Mujica, an architect and businessmen who emigrated from Chile. The U.S. English Inc. Web site states that currently the company is "working with members of the House of Representatives and Senate to help pass official English legislation in the 106th Congress. In 1996, U.S. English was instrumental in helping to pass H.R. 123, 'The Bill Emerson English Language Empowerment Act of 1996,' in the House of Representatives." The text on the Web page goes on to say that the bill did not pass in the Senate before the session was over.
English Inc. takes credit for helping Alaska, Georgia, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Virginia, Wyoming and Missouri pass some form of official English legislation. The company boasts a membership of 1.4 million nationwide and accepts contributions via the Internet.
Bates said the recent petition drive was not the first attempt by English Inc. to get an English-only law enacted in Oklahoma.
"When they first tried to get it passed through the Legislature, they got this Carol Martin to support it and another guy. Well, it passed in the House of Representatives, but they couldn't get it to a vote in the Senate because Kelly Haney stopped it.
"After Kelly Haney stopped it, U.S. English Inc. retaliated against him. Now he is in a difficult situation. That company from Washington, D.C., took out a full-page ad in the local newspaper in his hometown criticizing him. This is a huge company with mega-bucks and they could really destroy him. U.S. English Inc. is vicious."
State Sen. Enoch Kelly Haney confirmed that the company did take out ads against him not only in his hometown paper, but in a statewide newspaper as well.
"Actually I stopped it twice in 1986 or 1987. I defeated it on the floor, then two years ago we refused to hear it," Haney said. "They ran full-page ads against me ... they came at me pretty heavy. They criticized me for not letting the bill pass and I think they called me a dictator. It wasn't very nice."
Haney said people in his district who saw the ad told him, "If they had that much money to place that ad, why didn't they just buy computers for our schools. I felt good that the people in my district who are 90 percent non-Indian were supporting me. This isn't a grass-roots movement by people in Oklahoma."
Haney, like Bates and others involved with the fight, wants to know "where the money comes from" that supports English Inc.
"I have a theory of follow the money if you want to know what is really behind something," Haney said. "Well, I don't know where the money is coming from. They may deny this, but they offered me the opportunity to put some language in the bill that would protect the Native language. I declined. I told them that if it was wrong for other people, it was wrong for us. Once you find out where the money is, you will find out who the real driving force behind it is and exactly what the movement is about."
Both Bates and Haney said they believe there is more than just a uniform language at stake in the English only controversy. They said they see a ghostly image of racism behind the effort.
"I don't know, I suspect it is," Haney said. "I don't make comments like that lightly until I have more information, but it appears to be that way."
Bates said, "They have millions of dollars behind them. They use racism to collect money."
Haney said he suspects that it is Hispanic-speaking people who are the main targets of the laws. "I don't know why, but it just appears that way."
He said he came to that conclusion after being approached about putting language into the bill which would have given some protection to Native American languages. That fact made him suspect that only certain ethnic groups had been targeted by the movement, but he said he thought such laws affected everybody.
Haney said he doesn't regret fighting to keep the English only legislation from passing. "If I can stop something as evil as that is I will ... as the opportunity comes, I will stop it."
He went on to say he hadn't stopped it by himself, but with the help of others in the state Senate. "We have a lot of support in the Legislature."
As the legal battle goes on, Bates is asking all tribes throughout the United States to help in the efforts to stop English-only laws.
Bates said this a multicultural issue and help is needed from other tribes and minorities in all states. She urges tribes and other ethnic groups to get lists of who circulated petitions in their states. She said that 103 "hired guns" from English Inc. were sent by the company to Arizona to pass English-only legislation.
One of the strategies used by those opposing the English-only issue is to question methods and legality of how signatures were obtained for the petitions. Bates said she found out there are people who do nothing but circulate petitions across the country for a living. They are called petition gypsies.
"All they do is go from state to state to push petitions," Bates said. "And they make a pretty good living at it."
From what Bates has been able to find out these gypsies come from all over. In Oklahoma she found that some of the people circulating the English-only petitions were not Oklahoma residents and were being paid $1 for every signature they gathered.
"When they talked to people coming into the post office, which is illegal for them to do, they had kids out there doing the petitions. In Oklahoma you have to be eighteen years old, a resident of the state and eligible to vote, in order to do the petitions. They had kids out circulating the petitions. We have witnesses who are willing to testify they saw kids out with the petitions," Bates said.
Bates soon found out firsthand just how the English-only petitions in Oklahoma were introduced to Oklahomans.
"This woman that I saw at the post office ... this African woman, not African-American. She was standing there with this teen-ager who was probably her son. They were both standing there doing the petitions. It was illegal because he was a teen-ager and they were doing it at the post office.
"She was standing there with a T-shirt with a big JESUS sign on it. I walked up and she asked me to sign (the petition). I said 'Why would I want to sign that?' ... She said, 'Well all the Vietnamese.'
"I said, 'It looks like it is designed to hurt the Mexicans.'
"She said, 'It isn't just the Mexicans, it's the Vietnamese, too.' She started to talk about how they were taking over everything and claimed she had been in the post office and not one single person working (there) could speak English and that was why we had to get this law passed.
"Everything she said was racist, but that was why I was supposed to sign this. I said, 'Lady, you better take that T-shirt off. Jesus never spoke a word of English in his life. Jesus was a refugee who was forced into a foreign country and forced to speak a foreign language. He was just like those little Mexican children living in the United States.' I just turned around and walked off."
Urging citizens throughout Indian country to become part of the battle, Bates invites them "to call me at home or they can page me."
She emphasized a need for all English-only petitions, in all states, to be investigated to find out if they have legal signatures. She cited one instance in which a petition gypsy was not only getting signatures for the English-only petition, but for another issue at the same time. Bates said the man was later found to be a resident of Arizona, not Oklahoma.
Fannie Bates' pager number is 1-405-559-1994 or she can be reached at home at 1-405-325-9225.
Readers can access English Inc.'s web page at www.us-english.org.
Indian Country Today contacted English Inc., but the person who answered refused to answer any questions and stated she would contact the organization's media representative to have him call back. At the time of publication, the company had returned no call.
States with some English-only laws:
Alabama (1990), Alaska (1998), *Arizona (1988, 2000), Arkansas (1987), California (1986), Colorado (1988), Florida (1988), Georgia (1986 & 1996), Hawaii (1978), Illinois (1969), Indiana (1984), Kentucky (1984), Louisiana (1811), Massachusetts (1975), Mississippi (1987), Missouri (1998), Montana (1995), Nebraska (1920), New Hampshire (1995), North Carolina (1987), North Dakota (1987), South Carolina (1987), South Dakota (1995), Tennessee (1984), Utah (2000), Virginia (1981 & 1996), Wyoming (1996)
*Arizona's 1988 Official English amendment was overturned by the Arizona State Supreme Court in April, 1998.