Decades ago, the US government made a conscious effort to force Native American children to forget their tribal languages. In many regions, native children were taken away from their parents and sent to boarding schools, where they were not only encouraged to speak English put actually punished for speaking their own languages.
So, when teachers in a small-town Catholic School took it upon themselves to reprimand a 12-year-old Menominee student for translating a few basic English phrases into the Menominee language, it’s only natural that a firestorm ensued.
Here’s the story, as reported in the Toronto Star. After the girl, Miranda Washinawatok, translated “hello,” “I love you” and “thank you” into Menominee for other students in the class, her teacher, Julie Gurta snapped at her in class. Ms. Gurta’s rationale was that since she couldn’t understand Menominee, the children could be using it to say something improper behind her back.
As if that overreaction wasn’t enough, the girl was singled out again in her next class by the teacher for “upsetting” Ms. Gurta. Then, she was benched at a basketball game for the same reason.
Miranda’s mother went to the local news station after the school refused to clarify the disciplinary actions taken against her daughter.
That got results, as the Catholic diocese that runs the school agreed to meet with Miranda’s mother and her great-uncle, anti-racism activist Richie Plass. Despite the obvious echo of the “bad old days,” Plass attributed the problem to cultural ignorance rather than malicious racism. He told the Toronto Star:
“What’s become apparent to a lot of people in the diocese and the decision-makers especially is how much their staff and people flat-out don’t know when it comes to our culture. With this issue — and we don’t know what happened before now — to me I don’t think it was racist. I think it was ignorance. It’s ignorance and a form of intolerance.”
Meanwhile, the diocese spokesperson acknowledged that “the whole situation was handled poorly by the school. It was a wake-up call for us. This brought a lot of issues, emotion and anger to the forefront. There’s a lot there we need to work on.”
They might start by working with Ms. Gurta, who sent a letter to the family explaining her actions in which she accused Miranda of “increas[ing] increase racial and cultural tensions.”
How does a school in a heavily Native American area manage to remain so ignorant of the history of language suppression that they faced? And shouldn’t they be encouraging students to take pride in their heritage and speak a language that considered “highly endangered,” with only 130 native speakers left? More broadly, shouldn’t hearing someone speak another language (especially when they’re more than willing to translate for you) be treated as an opportunity to learn rather than a threat?