Levi Rickert, editor-in-chief in Native Condition. Discussion »
Today another Navajo Code Talker will be laid to rest. US Marine Corps Sergeant Jimmie Begay, 88, passed away Wednesday. He was one of the courageous Navajo soldiers who were trained to speak in code language utilizing their Navajo language during World War II.
Many years after the conclusion of World War II in 2001, Navajo Code Talker Begay was awarded a Congressional Silver Medal.
Why? Because he helped to save a nation by using his Native language. The Navajo code language was never broken. Unfortunately, this amazing history is not part of the core curriculum in the American educational system.
On another matter involving Native language, two weeks ago, Miranda Washinawatok, a 12 year old Menominee girl in seventh grade who enjoys playing on her school basketball team, was suspended or benched for one basketball game for speaking in her Native language.
Why? Because her teacher could not understand what Miranda was saying in her Native language. Miranda was sharing with a fellow classmate the Menominee words for hello and I love you.
She was scolded and embarrassed when her teacher came up to her and slammed her hand down on a desk and said:
"You are not to speak like that! How do I know you're not saying something bad? How would you like it if I spoke in Polish and you didn't understand?"
The school in question is the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Shawano, Wisconsin. The school is located just a few miles from the Menominee Tribe Indian Reservation. It has approximately 64 American Indian students out of 102 students who attend there. The racial complexion of the staff is not known, because the spokesperson for the Diocese of Green Bay that oversees the school did not know when I asked him on Friday afternoon.
Diocese spokesperson assured me the school
"failed miserably in its handling of the matter."
Recognition of failure or of a deficiency is a great first step towards healing. So in that sense, I am glad the church recognizes there is a major problem at Sacred Heart.
Equity and inclusion experts can attest top officials of organizations or corporations and entry level employees or students usually "get it" when comprehending the importance of multiculturalism. Unfortunately, there is usually a disconnection by mid-level employees. They usually don't want to "get it" when it comes to diversity issues.
In the context of Sacred Heart's scenario, Miranda would be entry level; the teachers, coaching staff and principal would be mid-level employees. Miranda gets it. Her teachers, coaching staff and principal don't. Sadly, the very ones who are on the front-line don't get it. How sad and unfortunate for the impressionable Mirandas in Indian Country.
American Indian students across America have the highest high school dropout rate of any racial / ethnic group. They the invisible and statistically insignificant in America. They dropout because of incidents like what happened to Miranda.
The incident involving Miranda, a tender soon-to-be teen, is one clear example of things gone bad for Indian kids in the American educational system.
The good news is Miranda comes from a strong Indian family. They care about her well-being as evidenced by Miranda's mother going to the school by 7:30 in the morning to see the principal. With this caring family, Miranda will learn to be strong from the insensitivity displayed by the mid-levels.
When it comes to Native language, Miranda should be proud she learned and can speak her Native language.
Unfortunately, for many American Indians of my generation, we were not afforded the ability to learn our Native languages. Unfortunately, the language was beaten out of our grandparents by school officials, who felt it better if we did not learn it.
Fortunately, for the United States of America, the Navajo code talkers were able to retain their language and they helped to win World War II.
That is the irony of Native language. The very languages that were seen as evil - or bad - helped to save the nation.
Today, we say: "Rest in peace, Navajo Code Talker Jimmie Begay", your battles are over; and we pray for Miranda to prosper, your battles have just begun.
posted February 4, 2012 8:00 am est
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