News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Friday, June 22, 2018

The vandalizing of language is the death sentence for a nation

One of my major areas of scholarship is Native American Literature.  The literature is both oral and written.  What is gripping about American Indian Literature is the importance placed on the integrity of language.  In his 1968 novel, House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday explains it:

“In the white man's world, language, too -- and the way which the white man thinks of it--has undergone a process of change. The white man takes such things as words and literatures for granted, as indeed he must, for nothing in his world is so commonplace. On every side of him there are words by the millions, an unending succession of pamphlets and papers, letters and books, bills and bulletins, commentaries and conversations. He has diluted and multiplied the Word, and words have begun to close in on him. He is sated and insensitive; his regard for language -- for the Word itself -- as an instrument of creation has diminished nearly to the point of no return. It may be that he will perish by the Word.” 
― N. Scott MomadayHouse Made of Dawn

In another story, "Lullaby" by Leslie Marmon Silko, an old Navajo woman avoids English because it is like a virulent disease germ:  "old ones always told her about learning their (the Anglo's) language or any of their ways: it endangered you."

Black Elk sees the white world as corrupted with lies: "But the Wasichus came, and they have made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller, for around them surges the gnawing flood of the Wasichu; and it is dirty with lies and greed."
-Black Elk Speaks

When talking about about the destitution on Indian reservations, historians focus on the spread of disease, the starvation by killing off the bison, the forcing onto reservations located on the least productive land, the embezzlements of the Indian agents, and the violations of treaties.  They point to those factors as producing the destitution on the reservations, but they do not delve incisively into the vandalizing of language and its role as an agent of genocide.

The stories abound about Indian children being taken from their parents and sent to schools where they would be punished for speaking their native language.  When a language is vanquished, the history, the culture and its values are lost.  This is something that American Indian elders realized and took steps to insure that there were always some people who knew their language and its literature.  But the vandalism had its desolating effects.

Treaties were broken to the point that American Indians learned to regard the language in them as useless and to trust no agreement.  Promises for food and supplies were made with no intention of fulfilling them.  Those broken promises and the starvation they produced were the reasons behind uprisings, such as The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862.The history of Indian-white relations is one of whites uttering words that could never be believed or trusted.  

Literary and linguistic scholars note that when language cannot be trusted, problems cannot be dealt with in any way.  Society deteriorates.   Indian people came to understand that there was no serious way to communicate with the government or the people of the United States.  Words are just noise; they have no meaning.  Without meaningful words, there can be no relationships, no trust, no way to make plans.  When words cannot be trusted, there can be no agreement or disagreement because one has to believe the words accurately represent something in order to agree or disagree with it.  Society devolves into the state of idiots yelling at each other in languages that convey no meaning. The result is people exploding in frustrated violence and others sinking into hopeless depression.

Many reasons are theorized for the alcohol and drug abuse on the Indian reservations and destitute conditions in which many of the people live.  To a people who believed in the sanctity of words, the destruction of trust in language is the the destruction of the spirit.  Just as the annihilation of the bison starved their bodies, the annihilation of language starved their souls.  They needed words to trust and honor, but words were desecrated by using them as instruments of lies and deceit and fraud.   

The vandalizing of language by Trump and his administration with constant lies and verbal abuse is depriving the nation of the resource needed to examine life and solve problems.  The people who recognize the lies and violence done to language find that it is not enough to merely recognize the fraud and the subversion of the nation.  To negotiate and legislate honorable agreements,  language has to be dishonored.    Trump has made the use of language dishonorable.  When no words can be believed or trusted, the options are to submit to hopelessnesss or to lash out with violence.

In an article in Blomberg, a political scientist notes that the lies used to advance the Trump agenda have pushed the Republicans and Democrats into a "soft civil war."  He said, "I don't know if the country gets out of it whole."  As one who observed and reported on the turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s, I see the factors that created the violence of the time.  But then, we still had language that calmer, stronger minds could use to thrash out solutions and needed changed.  There was anger and violence, but also words in which we could take refuge, cling to, and work into solutions.  A good part of the turmoil was in defining the facts that needed to be dealt with.   In the age of Trump, facts are denied and displaced by a vandalized and mutilated language that has no names for facts.  Language, as an instrument of creation, has been weaponized into something that only destroys.

A colleague who lived through the tumultuous times with me cannot understand why we are not in a state of riot.  After all the mass demonstrations of resistance, the nation has retreated into a state of paralyzed outrage.  But we see an element of caution.  The people who are on the side of knowledge of facts, reasoning with careful words, and the application of them through good will and good purpose realize that the opposition is far beyond the reach of those factors.  They are cautious because they understand that the coming resolution will not leave the country whole.  

In the destruction of language, they see a death sentence on the nation whose words were once the inspiration for democracy throughout the world.  However, the democratic spirit will not willingly or peacefully walk into that dark night.  Like the Indian elders, they recognize that the language must be preserved in case we ever want to try America again.


mike from iowa said...

Excellent read, Sir. Learned a lot.

Porter Lansing said...

Excellent. Brings to mind how "illegal immigrants" has almost always meant "unwanted immigrants."

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States