My only lingual fluency is in English, and only then with a certain level of caffeine in my system. I am not proud of this fact: I constantly tell the Freeport middle schoolers I work with how lucky they are to be bilingual, whether it be in Spanish or Creole. Even to the kids that do not speak English, molding clay beside a classmate-cum-translator, I tell them (rather their translator) how envious I am of them. They are young enough to learn. Starting Italian this semester at 25, I physically feel the struggle to comprehend these foreign rules of grammar. Knowing two languages is having two brains, four ears, four eyes, and still one heart. They are lucky. Except they aren’t: they are brown, poor and “academically challenged.” They’re stuck, and for too many of them, they will remain stuck in American. Despite their lingual gifts —or maybe because of them.
Where, how and how well one knows Standard English reflects one’s privileges (or lack thereof) in American society. If one learns English from Schoolhouse Rock videos shown by their parental figure on the family computer, or in for single period five times a week in a public school ESL classroom matters. It matters because there is an intersectional relationship between how one obtains English fluency and one’s status in American society. Fluency in English, and the journey to said fluency, was a privilege when Chief Standing Bear of the Poncas and Luther Standing Bear of the Lakota, and it remains so today.
Chief Standing Bear may not be the author of the work he narrates. Written in the first person plural, Chief Standing Bear notes that the 10 Ponca chiefs tell the inspector “The interpreter is ours. We pay him…” (Chief Standing Bear). Seeing as Chief Standing Bear was not fluent or fluent enough in English to speak directly to the American inspector, it is possible that Chief Standing Bear’s interpreter is writing this down or telling a person fluent in English Chief Standing Bear’s story. It is possible Chief Standing Bear wrote better English, or learned to, than he spoke and that these are his direct words. Though perhaps not: his use of the first person plural, in comparison to the first person singular used by the formally educated inspector and Luther Standing Bear, indicate either a lack of formal education in English or a purposeful misuse of the language, reflecting Ponca values. Nevertheless, the introduction of translation is a constant reminder to me the reader that there may be several degrees of removal between Chief Standing Bear’s experience of the events and what I am reading. The questioning and balancing of multiple truths in this story of injustice is distracting in reading and feeling this story.
From this tension of authorship (and thereby, ownership of truth), interesting ideas do spring forth. Rereading my sentence, I note how Chief Standing Bear may not be fluent enough. What does it mean to be “fluent enough”? To be understood, or to master a language? Can a language be mastered in the same way the Poncas were (unjustly) “mastered” by the American soldiers. Those soldiers killed 158 men, women and children: those soldiers took mastery of their lives and ended it (Chief Standing Bear). More often than not I believe one is awarded fluency by another. Fluency then requires a master. If so, who is the master? I am told I am fluent in English yet I do not feel any mastery over it. I have been told that one’s relationship with language and words is a lifelong journey: that you get better, but never perfect. You can become the President of the United States, arguably the most powerful person in the “free” world, and still not be a master of Standard English, as George W. Bush exemplified.
I don’t know how one progresses the stages of fluency to become fluent. Could Chief Standing Bear become fluent in Standard English? Yes, of course, but would Chief Standing Bear be acknowledged as fluent in Standard English in the 19th century courtroom where a judge, military men, journalists, and native English speakers witnessed his speech? Was it possible for him, if he were fluent, to be called so then? I am not confident he would be, given the treatment he received by the inspector and jailers, who kept Chief Standing Bear in jail even after the President’s telegram was received, proving the Chief correct (Chief Standing Bear). Who gets to call you fluent is a symbol of privilege.
Luther Standing Bear was most definitely the writer of his words. As a student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, learning Standard English in an academic school setting was part of “the ‘civilizing’ process” (Luther Standing Bear 376). This process he and his fellow pupils were inflicted with treats language as a material object. Under the umbrella of “civilizing,” markers of culture from the concrete (high collars, leather boots, white bread) to abstract (the significance of cutting one’s hair, one’s name, the prohibition of speaking any language but English) become tangible through the bodies of these children (376, 377). Cultural identity, rather than being a process, seems to Pratt and the Carlisle educators, to be a commodity. Because of this, I feel Luther Standing Bear is the writer, but not the editor of his words. His narrative structure, expository essay and proper English seem imply his audience is American. If it were his fellow Lakota, the specificity of his schooling years would not be framed like this, but include references and the language of his people.
Luther Standing Bear is writing for an American audience and this, coupled with the fact of how English was taught to him at the expense of his native language, makes me believe that his Carlisle teachers are his mental editors. In a way, all of our English teachers, from our parents to our friends to actual institutional instructors, are our mental editors. However, given the means by which it was taught and the environment the Lakota children were taught — in uncomfortable clothing with random inspections of their rooms, rooms overlooking a child graveyard — there has to be a psychological difference in a person’s usage and understanding of Standard English. My use of Standard English puts me at a much more privileged position, psychologically speaking, than the Carlisle children. Forget cogito ergo sum: “I speak, therefore I am” is far truer.
With all this said, how does one resist using a language oppressed upon you by your oppressors? Luther Standing Bear’s indifference to his English name selection has been called in our class an act of resistance. I hesitate to call it that. Is one performing resistance when done with lack of intent or consciousness? Is resistance deliberate and only deliberate? I hope to find that answer out by the end of the class. What I do believe, now at least, is that all language should serve its users, not vice versa. Grammar and the rules of language, rather than being a wall excluding those they find undesirable, ought to be a bridge allowing for common knowledge to create exceptional bonds via understandable communication. A number of people I met who learned English as a secondary language tell me of how difficult a language it is to learn. I am privileged to not know this struggle firsthand, and I speak from this privilege when I assert my belief that English is not inherently a difficult language. English wasn’t born hard: it was made hard by self-proclaimed gatekeepers.
To combat these Standard English Grammar Nazis/Alt-Righters, improper English, deliberately and continuously employed, can be a tool of liberation. Chief Standing Bear’s use of the first personal plural versus the first person singular, slang, and creole: these words challenge the oppressive hegemony of Standard English by showing the true flexibility and durability of English. Language is a tool of liberation. The dictionary is subservient to us, the living. As Luther Standing Bear says, “Only the people themselves, and never the scholars, can nourish [a language] into life” (377). Language creates not the one and only Word or Truth, à la N. Scott Momaday, but several. The possibilities are limitless and that is the germ from which liberation, societal and individual, blooms.