The Impact of Immigration on Bilingualism among Indigenous American Peoples

Article excerpt


Early federal government policies for American indigenous people alternated between extermination and assimilation. Imposing the colonists' and immigrants' language on indigenous people was important for achieving the latter. In the 1970-90's, federally funded grants for bilingual education for indigenous schools were offered to accommodate Native American pressures to reverse the tragic results of those former policies. The stated bilingual goals were to teach them Standard English and to revitalize indigenous languages. Many of these Native American students speak "Indian English" (W. Leap, 1993), a dialect resulting from sociolinguistic interference (see theory, D. Hymes, 1971). Few know any of their Native language. The "Indian English" dialect is ignored, even denigrated as a substandard communication form in these programs. This paper's purpose is to trace the evolution of bilingual education programs and their impact on Native American bilingualism and language revitalization for selected communities in the Northern Plains. Thirty years of evaluating these programs with ethnographic methods have resulted in these conclusions: 1) the local English dialect must be recognized as viable for Standard English to be acquired, 2) indigenous language revitalization requires infinitely more effort than what was provided, and 3) the government's covert goal remained assimilationist, not truly bilingual.


Unlike the immigrant to a new country who faces learning the dominant language of that country and potentially becoming bilingual, the indigenous people (1) of America have faced the imposition of the language of the initial immigrants to their lands. Throughout the early centuries of the immigrant expansion there was a vacillation in the federal government policies between assimilation and extermination of indigenous peoples. In the 1970's-1990's there was a feeble U. S. government attempt to accommodate pressures from indigenous people to reverse the tragic results of those former policies and to revitalize their traditional cultures and languages. This accommodation was manifested in federally funded grants for bilingual education programs for indigenous community schools. The purpose of this paper is to trace the evolution of the "bilingual education" programs and their impact on Native American bilingualism and Native language revitalization for selected Native American communities in the Northern Plains. This examination is limited to those Native American communities where the researcher has conducted evaluation research for the past thirty and more years.

Relationships between the U. S. Government and Native Americans

The relationship between the European-influenced U. S. Federal Government and the indigenous people of America has always been and remains unique. From the initial colonization and immigration, Europeans regarded the indigenous people as less than human, their cultures less than civilized, and at best, their many oral languages as simplistic. The federal government policies toward them began oppressively by removing them farther and farther westward or when they resisted this removal, the policy favored removal from the face of the earth, extermination.

In the later part of the 19th century, the federal government offered the remaining indigenous people treaties that included tracts of land (reservations), educational inducements/requirements, and some health provisions. These treaties and the fact that in 1924 the U. S. Congress conveyed U. S. citizenship on Native Americans (Reyhner, J. and J. Eder, 2004, p. 84) constitute a perpetual paradox for Native American status and identity. On the one hand, they are members of sovereign nations recognized by treaty, and they are also U. S. citizens with all rights and privileges. Unfortunately, there have been many and unrelenting U.S. government attempts and successes through time at abrogating all or parts of some of those treaties. …