At the Sacred Heart Catholic Academy in Shawano, WI, just off the edge of Menominee reservation, which holds about half the state’s Menominee population, a seventh grader was recently suspended from a basketball game for teaching a friend a few words of the dying Menominee language.
The principal told Washinawatok that the assistant coach told him she was told by two teachers to bench Miranda for attitude problems.
The alleged ‘attitude problem’ turned out to be that Miranda said the Menominee word
in Menominee that means “I love you.”
Miranda and a fellow classmate were talking to each other when Miranda told her how to say “Hello” and “I love you” in Menominee.
“The teacher went back to where the two were sitting and literally slammed her hand down on the desk and said, “How do I know you are not saying something bad?”
The story did not end there. In the next session, another teacher told Miranda she did not appreciate her getting the other teacher upset because “she is like a daughter to me.”
That’s right: teachers ganging up on a student because she is part of a world they are not, because she dared to spend time in that world in front of them, because someone speaking a language they haven’t learned must be assumed to be doing something bad.
In this, of course, the Catholic school teachers were continuing the policies of Richard Pratt, the founder of the first U.S. residential school specifically designed to wipe out Native American culture. His is the infamous quote:
A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.
Remember that the next time someone wants to tell you that what happened in the boarding schools did not constitute genocide. It was explicitly intended to. Remember it also when you hear people talking about how immigration is acceptable as long as people assimilate. Remember the cultural heritage of people who insist those around them should speak only English.
The Menominee language is a highly endangered language as a direct result of the actions of Pratt and those who followed his lead–and of the Roman Catholic church. The church ran the boarding school on the Menominee reservation, a school where the native language was deliberately killed off.
Marie Warrington Floring doesn’t recall much of her childhood.
But some painful memories of growing up in a boarding school for Native Americans still linger.
Violating rules was met with harsh discipline; even worse punishment was meted out for speaking Menominee. For Floring and others — who went months each year without seeing parents or siblings — feelings of isolation were the worst of all.
Miranda is one of the few people of her generation to speak Menominee. Her grandmother is a linguist and very actively involved in preserving the Menominee language and culture. Miranda speaks Menominee at home with her family. But when she spoke it in public, when she tried to teach a fellow student (60% of whom are also Menominee), her Catholic school teacher decided she was doing something wrong.
Then, because it wasn’t enough to be told that anything the teacher couldn’t decipher must be something bad, Miranda’s pride in her heritage was marked as bad attitude. The punishment for that wasn’t simply meted out by this teacher, either. Two teachers ganged up on this child and persuaded the basketball coach to punish her for them. Instead of taking any interest in the heritage of 60% of their students, these teachers used their authority to try to wipe it off the map.
Ah, how far we’ve come.