There are those among us who believe real Americans should speak English. Often this belief will end up with some sort of move to establish English as an "official language" of one place or another in the US. Seems straightforward enough. What could possibly be wrong about an attempt to codify the fact that English is the most common language used in the US? Plenty, according to Native Americans who are objecting to an attempt to do this in Oklahoma.
According to the Choctaw Nation, if this becomes a law, the next thing lawmakers have to do is to come up with a new name for the state, because Oklahoma is not an English word. Oklahoma is a word constructed out of two Choctaw words — okla and homma — which, when combined meant "red man." The language of HB1423 is straightforward enough. It identifies English as the "official language of the State of Oklahoma." It mandates that "all official documents, regulations, orders, and publications shall be printed in English." It goes on to say "all official programs, meetings, transactions, and actions conducted by or on behalf of this state and all its political subdivisions shall be in English." The bill does allow for exemptions for "compelling circumstances" and it does go on to say that it isn't meant to disparage any other language or to "discourage" the use of Native American languages. But, amongst all that governmentese, the Choctaws would like to know is the official name of the state or any of the Native American names used by towns and cities in the state a "compelling circumstance" to allow an exemption. Because that issue really isn't quite clear to them.
|US ENGLISH Inc. is the largest and most active of the groups supporting "English as official language" laws in the US. According to US ENGLISH, the purpose isn't to denigrate any other language, it's intended to preserve "the unifying role of the English language in the United States" and to help polyglot immigrants assimilate better into our society. The goal is to get everyone singing off the same song sheet, as it were - to expand opportunities for immigrants to learn and speak English, the single greatest empowering tool that immigrants must have to succeed." According to a US ENGLISH spokesperson, "it's very much an assimilation issue." To which Native Americans might quizzically respond: "What's this assimilation? We were here long before the first words of English were spoken."
To many Native Americans like the Cherokee Nation, proponents of these language laws are naïve, at best, if they think conferring official language status on English isn't a charged issue for people. According to Chad Smith, chief of the Cherokee Nation, the message Native Americans receive is "if there's an official language, your language is secondary and all other languages are secondary." The Intertribal Wordpath Society (IWS), a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the "teaching, awareness, use, and status of Oklahoma Indian languages" report a dwindling number of Indian language speakers in the state. According to Alice Anderton, executive director of IWS:
"We have absolutely nothing against English. It's great if people speak English. But it's great if people speak English plus some other language of heritage."