*This is the second of three writings exploring how language defines culture and identity. A multi-generational family trip highlighted the history of institutional attempts to eradicate language. With persistence and practice, words and memories remain.
Reading the New Choctaw Dictionary, I’m consistently reminded of context and bias. My “American” perspective questions why some words are missing and the reasons why. A truthful historical reminder emerges: an “advanced” society that ignores or erases its past falls into a perpetual state of mediocrity.
The Choctaw code talkers come to mind. From the BBC: “It’s an irony that probably didn’t go unnoticed by Choctaw soldiers fighting in World War One. While the tribe’s children were being whipped for speaking in their native tongue at schools back home in Oklahoma, on the battlefields of France the Native American language was the much-needed answer to a very big problem.”
The New Choctaw Dictionary features 4000 words preserving culture. From Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Chief Gary Batton: “…After removal (the Trail of Tears), Choctaw citizens were taught to read and write in their own language. During World War I, the Choctaw language was utilized as a secret code. Our Choctaw language has survived tribal language restrictions of boarding school and relocation programs as well as societal changes. These developments have contributed to the resilient and rich tapestry of the Choctaw language.”
Despite impressive historical and cultural contributions, the assault continues…
On November 28th, President Donald J. Trump “honored” Navajo code talker veterans in front of an Andrew Jackson portrait. Jackson was known for his ruthless removal (genocide) of Indigenous Peoples. Peter McDonald, President of the 13 surviving Navajo code talkers, spoke at the event. McDonald: “America, we know, is compose of diverse community…But when our way of life is threatened like the freedom and liberty that we all cherish we come together as one. And when we come together as one, we are invincible.” At the event’s closing, Trump referred to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.”
Throughout my reading of the New Choctaw Dictionary, I took notes of the language for future art projects. In 28 pages of research, words hold importance and have consequences. Tuklo (two) words of advice for humanity: never forget…