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Teaching Native Americans English: Hidden Motives and Ideology


Language defines people and the world people live in; therefore, when a new language is taught to someone, one’s cultural identity may slowly begin to change or grow as different languages convey different histories. This is often the case in post colonial countries where educational and religious systems are typically one of the first things colonizers develop while occupying and controlling a country because these things begin to change the culture as a whole. They use language, education, and religion to change people into the ‘new’ people they want them to be. This is also the case with the Native Americans as they were quickly taught English and how to read the Bible. While the agenda of the colonizers may not be clear, this change in language and religion was presumably done so to transmit religious ideology and to, quite simply, make them “civilized.”

One obvious reason for teaching Native American’s English was so that they could read the Bible and convert to Christianity. Child explains that Apostle Elliot, a Christian missionary among the towns in Boston, was successful in gathering congregations of Native Americans around town, even though it took him twenty-six years to start spreading this knowledge of God. Jennings believes that the missionaries weren’t all about God, but an attempt to get money from the Parliament. Elliot and Winslow, according to Jennings, presented an untruthful case that the colony was too poor and needed money to convert the Native Americans (207). Once they were awarded the money “the Company became a permanent center of activity for well-wishers of Massachusetts, enlisting the aid of wealthy and important people who thus became committed to active advocacy of the colony’s interest… the colonists even built ‘the grandest edifice’ of Harvard College with the money they were awarded by the Company for missionary use” (209). While we may never know today the true motives behind the colonists’ actions, Child states, “few [colonists] were engaged in this good work, multitudes were continually abusing and cheating the natives” (222). She gives the example of the camp of ‘the praying Indians’ called Wamesits located near the town called Clemsford. When a barn was burned down, the Wamesits were questioned and they thought because of their Christian values they would be safe, but they were instead fired at and their wigwams were set on fire (222). This is very different from what the “Appeal for the Indians” advocates for as it states, “By educating their children in the English language, these differences would have disappeared, and civilization would have followed. Nothing would then have been left but the antipathy of race; and that, too, is always softened in the beams of higher civilization” (219). Even once the Native Americans used the English language and had the same religion as the colonists, they were still engaged in continual violence with one another.

This idea of language and culture is still prevalent today. Lyons explains how Luther Standing Bear remembers the first time they were introduced to the idea European implements of writing, but how this technology was then quickly used to change them.  He quotes Bear as he explains the situation of the teachers saying, “‘do you see all these marks on the blackboard? Well, each word is a white man’s name. They are going to give each one of you one of these names by which you will hereafter be known’” (448). Lyons explains that this shows “the development of education designed to promote the eradication of all traces of tribal identity and culture, replacing them with the commonplace knowledge and values of white civilization” (336, 335). According to Lyons, what these Native Americans want is rhetorical sovereignty, “the inherent right and ability of peoples to determine their own communicative needs and desires in this pursuit,” (449) not be changed culturally. By learning English, they can communicate and participate in the English community, but this does not mean that they want or have a need to change who they are as a culture or society.

While some people believe America to be a place where one can come to practice any religion and to speak any language, many others would argue that with our educational and religious systems, the underling goal is to make everyone the same as they are meant to force ideological views onto people. In all colonized countries, the first thing the colonizers do is change the people’s religious and educational structures to resemble theirs; to ‘civilize’ them. They use the word ‘civilized’ to mean ‘like us’ or ‘better,’ when in reality, these people’s cultures and lives functioned perfectly the way they were. The Native Americans didn’t need to learn English or Christianity to be ‘civilized,’ though it may have been necessary for better communication to know and understand English.  I would argue that the hidden motives of the colonizers were to change the Native Americans and to make them more like the colonizers.

Works Cited

Child, Lydia Maria. Homomok & Other Writing on Indians. Ed. Carolyn L. Karcher. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press: 1986. Print.

Jennings, Francis. “Goals and Functions of Puritan Missions to the Indians.” Ethnohistory 18.3 (1971): 197-212. JSTOR. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.

Lyons, Scott Richard. “Rhetorical Sovereignty: What do American Indians Want from Writing?” College Composition and Communication 51.3 (2000): 447-68. JSTOR. Web. 1 Aug 2013.


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