The need to speak a Native language is critical

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by Doug George-Kanentiio
News From Indian Country

Seoul, Korea: I was there, in the capital of South Korea, a city of 10,000,000 located on the western shore of a small peninsula in northeastern Asia. My wife, Joanne Shenandoah, was performing at a special event which commemorated Aboriginal music from India, Tibet and North America. Her music is well received by the Koreans who have an intense curiosity about Native people.

They know that what they have seen in the movies and on television is inaccurate and fabricated but there is something wonderful about the traditional culture, something which is missing in their own starched lives. For them listening to an Aboriginal musician is the most direct way of making contact with a more basic, secure way of thinking, a philosophy of being which once existed here but has been obscured by rapid industrialization and a thousand year history of invasions from the Chinese to the north and the Japanese to the south.

Seoul is very close to the North Korean border which gives it a nervous energy and extreme sensitivity to anything which threatens their normal lives. This tension is readily seen in the hurried manner of the city’s people and the intensity with which they address any issue. They are always on guard but can be very polite once the normal barriers of language, culture and nationality are removed. They want to know about the mystic Indians, a people they believe who enjoyed unparalleled freedom, without masters or artificial confinementism, particularly those imposed by organized religion.

Here they honour their elders, respect their dead and believe in the influence of spirit beings, all while wrapped up, cocoon style, in heavy electronics. Seoul is the most computerized of all nations. But this is all “busy stuff” and obscures the true beauty of the land’s Indigenous customs which are strongly rooted in a love of family and venerated ancestors.

They want to know about us. Yet it is challenging to instruct without having a command of a Native language. Whatever is explained can only be done in bits, leaving the Koreans with a less than adequate knowledge as to our culture.

It becomes obvious that if a Native person elects to travel abroad on any kind of activity they should realize they represent their respective community even if they are without official standing. Their hosts expect to have their questions answered and good manners requires one to respond accordingly.

We should know how to recite at a minimum a thanksgiving prayer in our Native language. We should be able to teach them how to say “thank you,” “please,” “hello,” “goodbye” and other basics. We should also know a song or two since music is the most effective way to cross cultural barriers. This is the way my wife uses to show her audience the beauty of our music and it is very well received. Yes, we may explain to our hosts that most Native languages are dying or that we were not taught it in schools or the government beat our parents if they dared to talk in an Aboriginal tongue, but that does not impress the Koreans.

They know firsthand what it is like to have language and culture suppressed. The Japanese occupiers of Korea in the early 20th century were brutal in their denial of anything Korean. From the Korean alphabet to the very names of their families, all were outlawed by the Japanese. Students were forced to learn how to speak, read and write in Japanese or were severely punished otherwise. The brightest ones were taken to Japan to become further indoctrinated before being returned to their homeland as ardent advocates for the colonial power.

But it was in the remote villages where the Korean identity was preserved. To survive the teachers went underground and ultimately prevailed. There are lessons for Native people here rather than excuses for why we are not articulate in our own earth based language. We can learn from the Koreans to compliment their willingness to learn from us.

You have to be able to sing, or dance, or speak as a Native. Playing one is not enough. There is a great opportunity for Native entertainers, teachers and businesspeople here in Korea.

It requires elements of trust, sensitivity and honour, qualities the Koreans value highly. But central to securing their respect is knowing who we are as a people and having enough dignity to address our ancestors in a language they understand. Not being able to speak to our elders in a manner consistent with their linguistic reality is a sign of disrespect the Koreans would not tolerate.

Nor should we.

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