What's the deal with "English-only?"

An editorial by Wells Mahkee Jr.

The often controversial "English only" battle begins anew with the State of Oklahoma being the latest to enact "English only" legislation earlier this year. Numerous tribes in Oklahoma have blasted this action, saying that by enacting legislation limiting the use of Native (or other non-English) languages within a government setting, a dangerous precedent is set threatening a number of Native American languages, some of which are already in danger of dying out. Arizona, along with 27 other states, enacted similar legislation in 2006.

Interestingly, the word "Oklahoma" comes from a combination of two Choctaw words-"okla" and "homma"-essentially meaning, "Land of the Red Man." Thus, a remarkable dilemma is presented: If Oklahoma goes to English only, they may have to change their name. Why? If their laws state, "English only for the benefit of state government," then it's only logical that they change the name of the state along with the names of a number of sites throughout the state in order to comply with their own law.

California would face the same dilemma since they have also enacted "English only" legislation. Many of the most widely known cities in the state-Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento (just to name a few)-are Spanish in origin. As a result of this legislation, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was born in Austria) could be forced to change his name to something more "politically correct." Personally, I feel that we should give him a nice, strong Native American name-something like Arnold Strong Bear.

That being said, I feel extremely fortunate to have grown up in a household where we were never discouraged from speaking our Native language (Shiwi/Zuni). I've always found it fascinating to hear Native elders-regardless of tribal affiliation-speaking in their own Native tongue, telling stories and sharing their knowledge with the younger generation. This proves to me that the collective spirit of Native Americans is an undying one, and that despite decades of "forced assimilation" efforts during the infamous boarding school days, this spirit has remained strong.

My own upbringing is a good example of that enduring spirit. My late grandmother-who only got up to about today's equivalent of a third or fourth grade education-rarely spoke English to us. Most of her daily communication was in Shiwi, which is where I learned how to speak our language. I still remember times, like during sheep butchering, when she would stand there and point out the various internal organs and say the Zuni words to my younger brother, sister and I. I also remember one occasion when at around six or seven years of age, I was quite shocked to hear a white man speaking fluent Zuni. The gentleman, from the Vanderwagen family, happened to be a longtime friend of my grandparents, but just to hear him speak MY language so eloquently completely floored me. The fact that he spoke Zuni was enough for me to see that he clearly respected our culture, language and way of life.

So...it's a little ironic that I have an English degree from an accredited university and work daily with reading, writing and speaking English, considering that I don't even think of English as my "Native" language, per se. While I do read, write and speak English daily (since no one I work with speaks Shiwi), I always look forward to the opportunity to speak Zuni.

While opponents of "English only" legislation feel that their languages are threatened, I don't feel that's the case here in the Southwest. As long as you continue to believe in the spirit of Native perseverance, everything else will fall into place. So I strongly encourage all Native American language speakers to continue speaking your Native tongues because what I learned at home as a child was perhaps the best education I ever received.


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