Author Topic: Native american relationship with linguists  (Read 1749 times)

Offline lx

  • Global Moderator
  • Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 164
Native american relationship with linguists
« on: January 24, 2014, 11:49:25 AM »
This is mainly a question for Daniel, because he mentioned it in another post but starting a discussion about it there might derail the interesting discussion emerging there, and it also fits with the Typology/Descriptive Linguistics theme.

Quote
The Native Americans often fear/dislike linguists because of what happened historically. Again, the problem may be communication and intentions rather than what it appears to be on the surface.

What happened historically?

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1539
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: Native american relationship with linguists
« Reply #1 on: January 24, 2014, 12:23:54 PM »
That's a huge generalization (that I could have qualified a bit more). Certainly it's for some groups and not others, and I think/hope it is becoming less of a problem these days with better interaction.

I know little about this topic, but I've heard it brought up a few times as a problem for fieldworkers: the fact that you want to work with a group doesn't mean that would would trust you or allow you to work with them, and this is sometimes due to historical mistreatment.


I don't really need to outline the mistreatment of Native Americans by settlers and early (political) Americans going westward. It's just like any case of invasion/conquest: one group stealing from, slaughtering, displacing and giving disease to another. At the time of the arrival of the first settlers, there were around 300 different nations/peoples in the North American region. Not all were treated equally and not all responded equally. A small minority were fierce warriors who did in fact kill settlers and early Americans, certainly out of defense, and (being completely objective) probably also in a very small number of cases out of intended violence. (Before the Europeans arrived, the tribes were sometimes violent with each other. Europeans didn't introduce violence in the first place, but they did bring more powerful weapons, with many more people, and they were clearly the problem in any general sense.)
This all extended stereotypes and fears, resulting in the intended slaughter of more Native Americans because they were considered to be violent savages. (Of course other things were going on as well like the fact that they didn't adopt Jesus quickly enough! Right...)
[Edit: also look up "Manifest Destiny". It's one of those things from history that makes your head hurt because it's so absurd and evil yet was actually what people believed at the time.]

The problem with linguists is that they were often hired by the US government and part of the problem or even supporting it. They might have the relatively innocent goal of preserving the culture before it was destroyed (in which case the alternative was to NOT preserve it and still destroy it, given the political atmosphere and power dynamics that were in place), but clearly even that would be seen as someone stealing your language then, as a representative of the government, helping to destroy it. In other cases linguists may have been actively problematic by learning a language in order to convert the speakers to Christianity or to teach them 'proper' English instead of their language.

A major problem were boarding schools that were designed to eradicate languages: children were taken from their homes and placed in boarding schools but moved around so that the groups of children did not share a common language. They were forced to communicate in English. (Do a web search for "Indian boarding schools" for more information.)
I don't actually know how active the role of linguists was in this, but of course many people don't distinguish between a language teacher and a linguistic scientist. But in this case I don't know that it's even that: some linguists were truly ill-intentioned, supporting or even actively aiding in the destruction of culture and languages. Obviously, that's a bad thing and not still true (well, I hope!). And it all relates to other kinds of mistreatment and social problems.


However, there are major distinctions between the different groups. Some were affected much worse than others and still are mistrusting. Others are more open. There are a number of generous and responsible researchers studying Native American languages who are appreciated by the tribes that they work with, but it is delicate. And in fact there are a few cases (very important) of Native Americans themselves becoming linguists (even receiving a formal education in Linguistics) and returning to their home to do documentation and revitalization efforts. I think the revitalization efforts are probably most important for improving relationships.


That's about all I know. I'm sure it's discussed somewhere, but I don't have a particular source in mind. I believe the timeline was around 1850-1900 especially, but I'd have to look up those dates to be sure.
« Last Edit: January 24, 2014, 12:35:22 PM by djr33 »
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline Corybobory

  • Global Moderator
  • Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 138
  • Country: gb
    • English
    • Coryographies: Handmade Creations by Cory
Re: Native american relationship with linguists
« Reply #2 on: January 24, 2014, 01:43:10 PM »
It's a really horrible history - children being taken away from their families, and on the northwest coast where I'm from, the potlatch being banned.  In the schools for children they were banned from speaking their own languages and shame put on them and their culture.

The last of the residential schools were closed in the 1970s in Canada, which is shocking... it's all still in living memory, friends' grandparents were students in these schools.  It's definitely not forgotten :(
BA Linguistics, MSt Palaeoanthropology and Palaeolithic Archaeology, current PhD student (Archaeology, 1st year)

Blog: http://www.palaeolinguist.blogspot.com
My handmade book jewellery: http://www.coryographies.etsy.com

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1539
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: Native american relationship with linguists
« Reply #3 on: January 24, 2014, 06:09:34 PM »
Education is so terrible. Why don't they tell us about these things? For example, what's the point of learning about the Hippie movement in America (not to mention Disco) instead of learning about this? But anyway...

Hm, I didn't realize it was so recent. It can take a long time to fix things, but that's no excuse.

My impression (perhaps just as a 'southerner' ;) ) was that the situation in Canada was much less problematic. I might be right about that (in which case it's just that much more terrible here) or perhaps I just didn't know the details. I do know about a lot of (I believe) respectful and good research going on these days (especially out of UBC for example), and (sorry, my Canadian knowledge is limited) I've come across discussion of "First Nations" (a term not used here at all, by the way) enough that I feel like Canadians seem to be doing pretty well, at least today.


I suppose it's not surprising that there were changes around that time, given everything changing with civil rights and so forth, not that it wasn't too late (for all of that). The difference of course is that while (putting aside the terrible history) the future looks much better for minorities like African Americans in America, the effects on the Native Americans were so harsh that it nearly (and in many cases actually did) destroy them, their languages, their cultures, their families. So while we could put a positive spin on it that things are better now, that seems to be insignificant in light of the fact that it can't be undone and so much was lost.



In Linguistics classes, we often make a point of bringing up the fact that you truly can't control language. It just changes. People speak the way they do. But that's not entirely true. If you oppress those people, their entire ways of life, and take the children away, then, yes, you can. You can't really control their linguistic behavior still, but you can certainly take away the input and so forth. This example should be discussed more in those cases. I'll be sure to mention it to my class this semester in our short unit on language death.
« Last Edit: January 24, 2014, 06:35:57 PM by djr33 »
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline Corybobory

  • Global Moderator
  • Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 138
  • Country: gb
    • English
    • Coryographies: Handmade Creations by Cory
Re: Native american relationship with linguists
« Reply #4 on: January 25, 2014, 04:59:44 AM »
Yes we usually use the term 'first nations' or 'aboriginal' in Canada, although in casual speech it's 'native' or even 'indian' (though I really don't like that term!! Even though it's commonly used self-referentially).

It's funny, I always thought that the situation must be better in the US, mostly because of the greater population - in Canada first nations are about 1% of our population, which is around 33 million, so... 3 million or so? So they're not a huge voting power, which means they don't get catered to as well. We have one aboriginal province, Nunavut, since 1996, which has a large proportion of the population that are Inuit, and Inuktitut is a main language of administration and government. But there are a lot of social problems in native communities, at much higher levels than other communities - drug abuse and unemployment mostly.

I'm quite angry about the way we are taught first nations history in Canada - I mean, I grew up on Vancouver Island - the land of the Nootka (Nuuchahnulth), and Wakashan and Salishan languages - rich archaeologically, and linguistically.  But we learned about 'plains indians', spatially and temporally, worlds away.  Not about the actual history of what happened on the soil we live on, about the cultures around us at all, about the art, the potlatch, the mini-war over Vancouver Island between the Spanish and the British... yet I visit the British Museum, and there are giant totem poles as the focus of a room, and they say they come from Comox.  Why weren't we taught to be as proud or as curious? I didn't even know the words Nootka or Nuuchahnulth when I lived at the center of their communities!

I came from a tiny elementary school that was about 1/3 native.  We learned in depth about the salmon run, and we did take field trips to learn about how totem poles are built and how to weave cedar bark - but it just seemed such a small part, when there was so many more opportunities to learn about something so relevant to us - the actual history, the actual places around us and what happened there. No elders being brought in to tell us local stories about the places and beaches we grew up on, or about the relationships between groups and traders back in the rennaisance - nothing :(

I hear it is better now, a family friend who works at that school says that they actually teach the children a bit of Nuuchahnulth language. I hope they don't do an entire unit on plains indians anymore and actually focus on what's around them...

Quote
In Linguistics classes, we often make a point of bringing up the fact that you truly can't control language. It just changes. People speak the way they do. But that's not entirely true. If you oppress those people, their entire ways of life, and take the children away, then, yes, you can. You can't really control their linguistic behavior still, but you can certainly take away the input and so forth. This example should be discussed more in those cases. I'll be sure to mention it to my class this semester in our short unit on language death.

wow, that's so true and really powerful...

BA Linguistics, MSt Palaeoanthropology and Palaeolithic Archaeology, current PhD student (Archaeology, 1st year)

Blog: http://www.palaeolinguist.blogspot.com
My handmade book jewellery: http://www.coryographies.etsy.com

Offline freknu

  • Forum Regulars
  • Serious Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 397
  • Country: fi
    • Ostrobothnian (Norse)
Re: Native american relationship with linguists
« Reply #5 on: January 25, 2014, 05:24:45 AM »
A tribute to those who still march the trail of tears.

Europe - Cherokee

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1539
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: Native american relationship with linguists
« Reply #6 on: January 25, 2014, 08:38:02 AM »
Cory, I know what you mean. We get a filtered view of how Native Americans lived and then hear about various tragedies, but we rarely get much beyond that.
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.