Monday, November 5, 2012

A Missionary’s Words from the Past & Tlingit Language

Today many Native American and Alaska Native cultures work to combat language fluency loss and revitalize language use, seeking to overcome a complex past where U.S. federal Indian policies and laws fostered programs of language eradication. Often attacks on indigenous languages and cultures were carried out against tribal youth in classrooms, in boarding schools away from their families, or in day schools operated by Christian missionary educators. It is important to note that in many instances Native Americans and Alaska Natives intervened when schools abused their children or attacked their cultures and languages, but the wide ranging application of polices and laws made it difficult to avoid and combat all of the many aspects of language and cultural eradication programs.

Recently I came across a published memoir of a missionary couple, Charles and May Replogle, who operated a day school for Alaska Native youth in Douglas, Alaska during the 1890s. Their memoir, entitled Among the Indians of Alaska, published in 1904, contains wording about their efforts to stop the use of indigenous language of tribal youth in the classroom. Their words, when read today, sound very harsh and are troubling for many Alaska Natives seeking to learn their respective languages, but it is important to acknowledge the practices of the past and what indigenous communities have overcome. Although additional forms of punishment occurred, Charles Replogle’s words on page 95 from his chapter “Training the Children” give context to what children faced in boarding and day schools in Southeast Alaska.

“In order, that the children might the more rapidly acquire the English language, they were expected to speak nothing but English in the home [school]. Of course, this was hard for many of them who only knew two or three words, knowing none at all when they came, and naturally they would among themselves talk Indian. This made their pronunciation of English very bad, and interfered with their construction of sentences; so we required them to speak nothing but English except by permission; but they often would get into the washroom or in the wood shed, and having set a watch, they would indulge in a good Indian talk. A few cases of this kind, and we applied a heroic remedy to stop it. We obtained a bottle of myrrh and capsicum: myrrh is bitter as gall and capsicum hot like fire. We prepared a little sponge; saturated it with this solution, and everyone that talked Indian had his mouth washed to take away the taint of the Indian language! One application usually was sufficient; but one or two cases had to receive a second application. From that time on, progress in their studies was almost doubly rapid, for they dared not talk their own language.” C. Replogle, 1904.

The Sealaska Heritage Institute and other organizations are committed to advancing language learning. Sealaska Heritage Institute hosts language learning courses, develops language curriculum, and works with language on many fronts. Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private, nonprofit founded in 1980 to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.

Photo credit: Image of Charles and Mary Replogle from Among the Indians of Alaska and cover page of their book.

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