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Cancelling other cultures

PETER TRUDGILL on the schools that took children away from their homes and forced them to abandon their own language and practices

Picture: The New European

One of the most deplorable ways in which the spread of the English language around the world was effected in colonial countries was through residential schools for indigenous children.

In the United States, “American Indian Boarding Schools” were originally established by Christian missionaries. Until the early 1900s, in a centuries-long process of cultural genocide, Native American children were forcibly taken away from their homes and communities, and held in government-funded residential schools, where they were compelled to adopt Christianity and abandon their own languages and cultures, which were denigrated and ridiculed.

In these schools, children were punished for speaking their native languages; they were forced to abandon their native clothing and hairstyles; and they were given English-language Christian names, which they were obliged to use.

Sometimes, children from different tribal and linguistic backgrounds were deliberately mixed together in the same school in order to further reduce their opportunities for using their native languages.

If the children were young enough, they would actually lose their ability to comprehend and speak their native tongues altogether, and so they would be unable to communicate with their families and community members if they were fortunate enough later on to be reunited.

Many children died in these schools, too; recent investigations have shown that there were also many cases of physical, sexual and mental abuse in these often church-run institutions.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada / Commission de vérité et réconciliation du Canada has also found that the former policy in that country of forcibly removing aboriginal children from their families for compulsory schooling in the Indian Residential School system can most accurately be described as cultural genocide.

The commission’s report has documented widespread physical and sexual abuse at these government-sponsored residential schools, which indigenous children, including Inuit, were forced to attend.

The schools, which operated from 1883 until as recently as 1998, were financed by the federal government. But they were largely run by churches,
and were responsible for the deaths of at least 3,000 pupils through neglect or actual mistreatment.

The first linguistic casualties of the expansion of English out of the British Isles were the North American languages spoken by the children subject to this treatment.

In what are now Canada and the US, including Alaska, there were something like 300 different languages at the time of the first European contact.

Now, well over 100 of these languages have totally disappeared and another 75 are remembered by only a small number of elderly speakers.

In the US, only Navaho in the south-west has as many as 100,000 speakers; in Canada, Cree probably has rather more. Nearly all of the remaining 100 or so North American languages are likely to be gone by the end of the 21st century.

If this proves to be the case – and it is hard to believe that it will not – then, from the time of the arrival of the first English speakers on the east coast of North America, it will have taken a mere 500 years for English to have killed off (almost) all the indigenous languages of Canada and the United States.

The boarding schools for indigenous children will have been a large and evil part of this development, as they also were in the cultural genocide inflicted on the indigenous populations of Australia.

MISSIONARY

Latin mittere means “to send”. Its past participle is missum “sent”. A missionary is someone sent out, usually to a foreign land. But mittere could also mean “throw” or “hurl”, as in missile, which might be a better word to describe the deleterious effects of missionary activities on indigenous cultures.

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