Skip to main content

Omaha Magazine

A Linguistic Sea Change Across Indian Country

Aug 30, 2016 11:57AM ● By Charles E. Trimble

Although I am a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, my first language from my earliest years has been English. My father was a white man from Onawa, Iowa, and my mother was Lakota. Although to my knowledge my father spoke no Lakota, my mother was fluent in the language.

My father died when I was not yet two years old, and I was raised by my mother. Mom never pushed me to learn the language and never tried to teach me; however, much of the dialogue in our household after my father’s death was in Lakota, for most of her friends were Lakota and very traditionalist. So over time I acquired a pretty good vocabulary, but never learned the nuances to make much sense speaking the language. In fact, when I would try to speak Lakota, my full-blood friends would laugh at me. I didn’t know for the longest time why they laughed, and they didn’t offer to tell me—they were having too much fun. I had learned all that I knew of the language from my mother; when I would ask how to say something in Lakota, she would tell me. What I didn’t know, and what she didn’t tell me, was that there is a male way of speaking Lakota and a female way, and I was speaking like a girl.

ChuckTrimble2I attended Holy Rosary Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation, an Indian boarding school run by Jesuit priests and Franciscan nuns. As with all Indian boarding schools at the time, rules were strict and discipline was often harsh. But I do not recall that there was any prohibition, written or otherwise, on speaking the Lakota language. And if there was, signals were certainly confusing, for there were prayers and songs in Lakota. Student dancers performed in full regalia before each basketball game, and there were cheers in Lakota during the games. But that was in the 1940s and 1950s, when most of the students were fluent in English.

However, it is well documented that in all Indian boarding schools during the first three decades of the 20th century, tribal languages were forbidden, and punishment was severe for speaking them. The overriding principle of Indian education was articulated in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt, founder and head of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania: “Kill the Indian and Save the Man.”

The story of the state of Native tribal languages today has got to include the struggle of Indian people to save and preserve their cultures, including their languages, over a period of nearly three quarters of a century in which national policy demanded destruction of those cultures. 

At the turn of the 20th century, after the tribes were conquered and confined to ever-shrinking reservations—many of which were in alien lands far from the tribes’ primeval homelands—national Indian policy was one which is known today as Manifest Destiny. Although it was never articulated as national policy, Manifest Destiny philosophy held that conquest and development of the New World was preordained and that the aboriginal inhabitants would succumb and fade into non-existence in the public view and conscience.

Under this philosophy, the tribes would suffer physical attrition as a result of alien disease to which they had no immunity, warfare provoked by transgression onto their lands, and assimilation into the larger dominant society.

That philosophical strategy also provided for cultural attrition in the destruction of tribal structures and lifeways, and the Indians would be forced into the dominant society as second-class citizens, pressed in desperation to forfeit their lands. To facilitate the process of cultural attrition, native religions and ceremonials were prohibited, and tribal languages were forbidden in Indian schools. By the close of the 19th century it appeared that truly the end of the “Indian race” was at hand. The popular perception of the dying race found a perfect metaphor in James Earle Fraser’s 1915 sculpture End of the Trail, depicting an exhausted, dying warrior astride an equally pathetic mount.

But other forces were at work that would help save the tribal languages, although these were not intended to counter Manifest Destiny. Catholic priests and Protestant ministers had begun in the early 20th century to learn the languages and publish prayer books and hymnals for use in their proselytizing—conversion to Christianity, after all, was an important part of forced assimilation being imposed on Indians. Both the Presbyterian and Catholic churches produced excellent dictionaries which would prove to be invaluable in preserving and restoring tribal languages.

The Smithsonian also sent out ethnologists and anthropologists to collect Indian artifacts and record tribal languages and songs. Among those assigned to this multi-year undertaking was Frances Theresa Densmore, a young professional anthropologist who would become the Smithsonian’s first ethnomusicologist in 1907. Over the next 50 years she would collect thousands of recordings, many which are held in the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. Many of the original wax cylinder recordings have been reproduced using state-of-the-art media and many have been returned by the AFC to the tribes of their origin.

Today we are witnessing a resurgence of Indian tribes reclaiming and exercising their sovereignty and developing their resources accordingly. And restoration of the tribal languages is spearheading this renaissance. Indian schools and tribal colleges now are offering tribal language courses. My alma mater, Holy Rosary Mission—now known as Red Cloud Indian School—requires a Lakota language course in all twelve grades.

Tribal members are using new technological innovations in the restoration of their languages: Recently a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians received a patent for his new method for decoding the inherent patterns in the Cherokee language, making it simple and easy to learn. 

ChuckTrimbleAbout the writer:

Up to his retirement in 2001, Charles E. Trimble was president of Charles Trimble Co., a national consulting firm specializing in economic development on Indian reservations. He is president of Red Willow Institute, a non-profit corporation he founded to provide technical and management assistance to Native American non-profit organizations.

Born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Trimble is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.  He received his elementary and high school education at the Holy Rosary Mission Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and received a B.F.A. degree from the University of South Dakota (1957). Following service in the U.S. Army, he did further studies in journalism at the University of Colorado.

In 1969 he was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association, and served as the organization's executive director until 1972, when he was elected Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians.

In 1975 he represented U.S. Indian tribes at the charter meeting of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in Copenhagen, Denmark.  In 1983, he was a U.S. delegate at the U. N. Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1985 he was a U.S. delegate to the Human Rights Experts meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Accord) in Ottawa, Canada.

Trimble served from 1991-1997 on the Board of Trustees of the Nebraska State Historical Society, the last three of those years as President. In 1996, he was appointed by the U.S. Senate Majority Leader to the American Folklife Center Board of Trustees in the Library of Congress.

In 1998, Trimble received the Pioneer Award from the Nebraskaland Foundation at its Statehood Day Dinner in the Nebraska Capitol Rotunda. In December 2000 he received an honorary Doctor of Cultural Sciences degree from Creighton University, and in May 2002 he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Wayne State College. In 2008 Trimble received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of South Dakota, and an honorary degree from Oglala Lakota College.

Trimble lives in Omaha, Nebraska, with his wife, Anne. 

Read also from the September/October 2016 edition of Omaha Magazine:

To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Evvnt Calendar