Sunday, February 8, 2009

If They Lose Their Language

<---The Natick Bible, the first book printed in the United States, an Algonquian-language translation by John Eliot (he must certainly have had lots of help from Native ministers/translators).

Not long after John Eliot's Natick Bible came out, missionaries gave up on translating the Bible and instead put more of their efforts behind teaching English. Learning a second language isn't a bad thing. The bad thing was that it reflected a common prejudice that the Indians' languages were "barbaric."

In the Appendix of his Report to the Secretary of War, Rev. Jedidiah Morse includes copies of a number of letters, one written by John Sergeant [Jr.] in which he reveals to Morse (and to us) his "ideas...concerning Missionary Establishments among the Natives of America"(Appendix, 113).
1. With regard to the Missionary: he ought to be a man of good abilities and extensive learning; a man of prudence, and with all, of common sense.
2. He ought to be instructed to learn the language of the natives. It is not so barren, but that every doctrine of the gospel can be communicated to them in their own language.
3. Some books ought to be printed in their language, and children ought to read them. This plan is now in operation among the Oneidas.
4. My people, I find, can read their own language very fluently, when they pronounce English very indifferently. This will always be the case, so long as they speak their own language in their families.
5. If they lose their own langugae, they will lose with it their national pride and respectability. This is the case with the Brothertown Indians. They have lost their language; and are now, perhaps, more corrupt than any Indians in the country.
6. Their reservations ought to be large, and at least twenty miles from white or black inhabitants.
7. Civilization and religion must go hand in hand, as I have read, with regard to Africa. "The plough and the Bible go together." As soon as they can feel and taste the sweets of a civilized life, their disposition to hunt and wander will cease. (pages 113-114 in Morse's Appendix)
Some people seem to think that missionaries could not have been in favor of both "civilization" and a healthy amount of what we might call "cultural preservation," but the impression I get of John Sergeant [Jr.] is that he was tolerant and probably ahead of his time.

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