Indian education

Before a Chippewa teen-ager went on a killing spree in Minnesota, the Christian Science Monitor researched a series on Native American education. To summarize: The kids aren’t all right.

In response to this story on Cherokee immersion classes, Amritas, a linguistics professor now working in the private sector, is skeptical that Cherokee can be revived as a living language by teaching it in school. People learn and use a second language when they need it. Cherokees can do everything they need — except talk to elderly relatives — in English.

A middle school in the Seattle-Tacoma area may be named for Bob Satiacum, a Puyallup Indian activist who was arrested for fishing rights protests, and for conspiring to murder a rival and molesting a child. From a Seattle Times column:

In 1982, Satiacum was convicted of racketeering, selling contraband cigarettes, illegal gambling and the murder-for-hire plot.

Claiming he was being punished for his activism, he fled to Canada.

There he was accused of fondling a girl and convicted by a Canadian court. He died of heart failure waiting to be sent back to the U.S. to face possible life in prison.

Leaving aside the other felonies, naming a school for a convicted child molester seems like a bad idea to me.

About Joanne


  1. Half Canadian says:

    Scotland is trying, in some parts, to do this with Gaelic, and Wales with their celtic-equivalent language. There has been some talk of the same in Nova Scotia teaching Gaelic immersion.
    As sympathetic as I am to this (Scottish roots), Gaelic is a dying language, and while mourning may be appropriate, attempts at reviving it should not be engaged (Schiavo metaphor?). Language is a tool, and English is the best tool in America for success (and much of the world).

  2. I agree. Languages are used (and modified) by people as needed. That is why any “living” language cannot remain fixed, but will evolve as new words and syntax are added and older (unused) ones are generally discarded over time.

    In a democracy, one really can’t mandate the use of a language by the people.

  3. So being President of the US (and owning slaves at a time when it was legal) warrants having your name taken off a school, yet being a convicted child molester gets you on the short list to have a school named after you?

    My head hurts.

  4. Thanks, Joanne!

    Half Canadian,

    What do you think of immersion programs in Canada? Are they working? My guess is that they might be overhyped. And if long-term bilingualism in English and French – a language with (let’s face it) far more utility than, say, Cherokee – is difficult to obtain, then bilingualism in English and Cherokee is not going to last.

    Besides Scotland and Wales, there’s Ireland, which has tried to “revive” Irish for a long time with very meager results. And in Hawaii, there have been Hawaiian language immersion programs which go up to the high school level and have been graduating students with 13 years of Hawaiian for years.

    One may read claims of “success” in those places but one should take them with a grain of salt. Language revivalists understand the PR game and some think that anything less than rah-rah cheerleading will hurt their cause.

    Kids in immersion programs are wise to this; they KNOW they are expected to tell journalists how fluent they are. If they dissed the program in print or on TV, they might be ostracized at school. I have never read any student ever publicly criticize an immersion program, and that to me is suspicious. Even the “best” classes, however defined, have their share of complainers.

    Self-evaluation of language skills is not reliable. So it would be interesting to put immersion students’ fluency to a third party test. I’ve never heard of such a thing, though. I wonder why. (I would very much welcome any data of this type. I would be quite happy to see immersion programs validated by testing.)

    What I *have* heard from one immersion teacher is that kids in immersion classes even after several *years* still make elementary grammatical mistakes in their second language. I found that absolutely shocking. Perhaps those children in that program *were* fluent in the sense that they had perfect understanding of the target language and could generate comprehensible (but still ungrammatical) utterances with ease. That is admittedly far more than most North American foreign language students can do, so it is no mean feat, but many will erroneously assume that those students’ “fluency” entails “balanced bilingualism” (equal proficiency in all aspects of both languages). It does not.

    I hope no one mistakes my skepticism for anti-minority language prejudice. I WISH kids could learn multiple languages, all at the same high level, and keep them forever. But that’s not how things work out in the real world. All languages have equal *potential* expressive power, but they are *not* equal in utility. Pragmatism outweighs cultural identity. How many Canadians or Americans speak the languages of their ancestors? I’ve heard North Americans say over and over again, “Oh, it would be *nice* to explore the language of my ancestors blah blah blah” but most of them *know* they will never get very far in that language, if they start it at all.

    I am Japanese-American, and AFAIK, there are very few JAs of my generation who have learned Japanese, a language *not* spoken by their parents (or, in some cases, even by their *grand*parents). So many assume that I must be Japanese or have parents from Japan (neither is true). In my experience, most people in Japanese language graduate programs in the US (i.e., with serious profiency) have no Japanese ancestry. Blood ties are powerful, but not strong enough to keep the old tongue.


    “Languages are used (and modified) by people as needed.”

    Indeed. And languages are also *discarded* by people as needed. Outright linguistic genocide (destruction of a language by banning and/or killing all of its speakers) happens, but that’s fortunately not the norm.


    I have a three-word answer to your question:

    Yes. Identity politics.

    My apologies to Joanne if this comment is too long. You may delete this if you wish, as I plan to repost this on my blog.

  5. I wrote:

    > I’ve heard North Americans say over and over again, “Oh, it would be *nice* to explore the language of my ancestors blah blah blah” but most of them *know* they will never get very far in that language, if they start it at all. I wrote:

    > I’ve heard North Americans say over and over again, “Oh, it would be *nice* to explore the language of my ancestors blah blah blah” but most of them *know* they will never get very far in that language, if they start it at all.

  6. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Catholics used to learn enough Latin to participate in the Mass, usually in a church related school but not in public school.
    Public education should concentrate on languages of commerce, leaving culture/religion stuff to private groups.

  7. A counterexample might be Israel, where Hebrew was revived.

  8. David Foster: “A counterexample might be Israel, where Hebrew was revived.”

    The case of Israel is very different from any of the ones I mentioned.

    For one thing, Hebrew had no Goliath-class competitor in Palestine at the time. Even pre-Holocaust Yiddish was not to Hebrew what English is to Cherokee, Irish, etc. today.

    Second, Hebrew had functional value: it united (and still unites) Jews with different native languages. But Cherokee, Irish, etc. already have English as a common language.

    Third, Hebrew had religious value. I presume that Cherokee have lost or are losing their native religion – whereas the Irish could still remain Catholic in English.

    I recommend Benjamin Harshav’s “Language in Time of Revolution” (sic; via Joel at, a study of the Hebrew revival:

    It deflates various myths about the revival – hype was around back then too.

    That book reinforced my view that language revival is indeed possible, but only if a complex set of factors are in place. They are not in place in the Anglosphere. If Hispanic kids cannot hold onto their Spanish – hardly a minor language – what hope do the *majority* of English-speaking kids learning Cherokee etc. have of keeping those languages? (There will hopefully always be a handful that will preserve the language, if not keep it alive. But they are the exception, not the rule.)

  9. Bluemount says:

    My son was a poor student in Spanish. IMO his problem was he didn’t understand how important the homework was. I sent him to a college Spanish immerision program for a month, he was the only child. He really loved it and wrote copious notes every day. When he came home he was amazed he thought in Spanish. He still failed Spanish in school but now that he is preparing for college he understands he could have learned Spanish.

    I do wish schools emphasized the importance of discipline and that homework was clearly graded. I don’t think a child will understand the importance of correct grammer in a foreign grammer if they don’t first understand it in their own language.

    I’m sorry if this is off topic.. I can’t say much on Indian issues because I know so little about it. It will be very hard for them to remain intact in the globalizing world. Part of keeping the culture alive is maintaining a public interest. Even if the language doesn’t survive, a lot of the art, stories, songs and dances could.

  10. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    In regards to ‘bilingual education’ in the U.S…. if parents or a particular community (ie. Mexican-American, Cherokee, whichever) want their children to retain their home language/culture, it’s THEIR responsibility, not the public sector’s, be it public schools or Uncle Sam. Native language classes should be handled in the private sector (ie. some of my Thai students study their native language in Saturday classes sponsored by their own community groups). English is the unifying language of our country. E pluribus unum. ‘Nuff said.

  11. Half Canadian says:

    Regarding French Immersion in Canada:

    I can understand the basis for this, but it was started some time after I left junior high school. I don’t know French, and I come from a province (Alberta) whose inhabitants are generally anoyed at the attention that Quebec receives from Ottawa. Given the 2 referrendums on secession in the past 15 years, I can’t say that French Immersion has helped to unify the country (sure, they both failed to get a majority, but these were much closer contests than the 1980 vote that had 40% voting to suceed. The last 2 were around 48%-49%).

  12. Bluemount,

    So your son went to a “college Spanish immersion program” *before* going to college: i.e., he was a 16 (or so) year old among college kids? I’m confused.

    “It will be very hard for them to remain intact in the globalizing world. Part of keeping the culture alive is maintaining a public interest. Even if the language doesn’t survive, a lot of the art, stories, songs and dances could.”

    I agree completely. That is the situation in Hawaii: traditional culture, apart from religion, is still very much alive and many non-ehtnic Hawaiians (the majority in Hawai’i) are interested in it. But very few have actual fluency in Hawaiian, though many people take it for a year or two in school. Language is part of culture, but just part of it.


    My view is that schools should be privatized (not that this will happen any day soon!). If people want Cherokee language education, they can choose to pay for it. And I cannot imagine the costs being too high: native speakers live there and materials can be printed with computers – the only essential is a Cherokee syllabary font. Whether the native speakers are qualified to teach their language is another matter that I’ll blog about soon.

    Half Canadian,

    Thank you for your answer. My uneducated guess would be that immersion students are not only too young but also too few to have made a difference in the voting over secession. Anyway, knowing a foreign language does not necessarily make one sympathetic to its native speakers: e.g., lots of Europeans with fluent English loathe the US (but then again, they probably like Canada). One could, at least in theory, know French but still be prejudiced against Quebec. I would imagine that a few kids are in French immersion because their parents thought French was sooo classy, not because they themselves have any interest in it or Quebec.

  13. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Unmentioned in the writeups about the shooter, the Nazi websites he visited were also ecoterror sites, sympathetic with ELF and EarthFIRST among others.

  14. Walter,

    That’s not surprising. Look at this:

    “And Hitler also of course foreshadowed the Red/Green alliance of today. The Nazis were in fact probably the first major political party in the Western world to have a thoroughgoing ‘Green’ agenda.”

    The bark of the Nazi tree is brown; its leaves are green.

  15. Needless to say, I am NOT trying to make the point that environmentalists are Nazis! I hope that’s clear now. One can be green without being a Brownshirt.