Aaron Bird Bear is the inaugural Tribal Relations Director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
English, a little Spanish, and I often include greetings and salutations in the Indigenous languages of my ancestors (Diné Bizaad and Hidatsa) and the Indigenous languages in the western Great Lakes:
- Bodwéwadmimwen/Neshnabémwen (Potawatomi)
- Hoocąk (Ho-Chunk)
- Mã’eekuneeweexthowãakun (Mohican)
- Mamāceqtaweqnaesen/Oma͞eqnomenēweqnaesen (Menominee)
- Huluníixsuwaakun (Munsee)
- Ojibwemowin/Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe)
- Ukwehuwehnéha (Oneida)
Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?
The nature of the work that I do is based on the pivot higher education has made in the 21st century to think about deeper collaborations and communications with Indigenous nations. We’re joining this movement, considering Indigenous knowledge might be very useful for us as we face challenges going forward collectively on this planet and also in recognition of the inherent sovereignty of the Native Nations of Wisconsin with the university staffing a Director of Federal Relations and a Director of State Relations. I focus on how the university can be responsive to the areas of interest shared by the 12 Native Nations of Wisconsin with the university, and I work to deepen the structures for communication and collaboration between tribal nations and the University at large.
How does language intersect with your work?
Indigenous language intersects with my work every single day. It is important to remember that the United States spent almost a hundred years trying to eradicate Native American languages and cultures. They did it by child separation. The United States removed Indigenous children from their families up until 1975. For example, in the state of Minnesota in the year that I was born, one out of three of every Indigenous youth was removed from their families for the express purposes of eradicating Indigenous languages and cultures. These impacted Indigenous people are still trying to reconcile those experiences, including the Gathering For Our Children and Returning Adoptees Powwow in Minneapolis. Today, the Indigenous peoples of Wisconsin are 98% monolingual as a result of violent, coercive boarding schools and the criminalization of Indigenous languages and cultures until 1975. We now know how toxic adverse childhood experiences (ACE) are for adults, and Indigenous youth, like three of my grandparents who experienced years of ACEs while forcibly separated from their families while they were children. There are fewer than seven fluent Menominee language speakers and fewer than 35 Ho-Chunk language speakers, who are all over the age of 60. These Indigenous languages have been a part of this continent for thousands and thousands of years and they are extraordinarily endangered. My every day work is related to advancing the issues, needs, and priorities shared with us by tribal nations. Indigenous language revitalization and instruction is a significant priority for all 12 First Nations in Wisconsin.
What can be done to support Indigenous language revitalization and instruction?
We can leverage the entire UW System to take on parts of Indigenous language revitalization and there should be home for Indigenous languages where coordination across the system might occur. Instructors are at a premium because there are so few speakers. We need to organize ourselves to provide language learning for anyone within the UW System. We can also think about what we can do for the Native Americans on campus. I try to remind young people and young adults that engaging in even a little bit of language learning is good for one’s sense of self and making meaning as an Indigenous person in this colonized continent. We call it language as medicine and research demonstrates that Indigenous languages are important for our success, lead to better mental and physical health outcomes for speakers of heritage languages, which then often translate to academic and professional success. Most importantly, I am trying to strategize and think about how we can get this powerful institution, which is renowned for language instruction, to embrace Indigenous languages as a fundamental piece of the effort that we should be involved in as a research university.
To what extent do you feel others on campus value Indigenous languages in the context of your work?
The organizing principle and goal of all settler colonial societies is replacement. A settler colonial society often does not educate its citizenry about what is being replaced. This model emphasizes teaching about European and European American social and intellectual achievements on this continent and ignores 99% of the human story that existed prior to colonization by European powers and then, later, American powers. The vast majority of US citizens have a very simplified understanding of Indigenous peoples and settler colonialism. Most people do not even think about Indigeneity and do not value Indigenous languages because they have been trained not to think about them or value them since US policy was attempting to eradicate all Indigenous languages and cultures until 1975. If we think about equity, inclusion, and equal educational opportunity for all, does that mean American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians are forced to assimilate and abandon our knowledge systems? That is very often still the case right now in public education. It’s true that American Indian Studies and Indigenous Studies have had great expansion in the United States, especially in select public universities and prominent private institutions which have recruited many leading Indigenous scholars. This shows that higher education intuitions with resources are trying to expand Indigenous knowledge. To really understand Indigenous cultures, we need to understand Indigenous ways of being, and for that we have to understand Indigenous languages. When I think about essential learning outcomes for undergraduates, no matter what your major, when students graduate from UW-Madison, the university seeks to help students to develop an understanding and appreciation for the complex cultural and physical worlds in which they live and to realize their highest potential of intellectual, physical and human development. Indigeneity is a prerequisite to fulfilling this mission. We should know that to enhance the well-being of Indigenous peoples, Indigenous languages are at the heart of our hope.
Have you ever experienced or observed linguistic prejudice or discrimination?
Since I speak English, I haven’t experienced it, other than being denied the ability in my childhood to learn my heritage languages from my Diné, Hidatsa, and Mandan grandparents and parents due to coercive Assimilation policy in the US. However, I consistently experience discrimination as a brown person in this time. I do have colleagues and friends on this campus who experienced language discrimination. It is a big challenge for Indigenous peoples, but at the same time there is tremendous revitalization happening today, and I am excited to see the little tangible pieces of revitalization. For example, three of my colleagues now have their Indigenous language names at the front of their email. It is powerful to see people claiming their Indigenous names because they are claiming Indigenous identity instead of excusing it as too hard to learn. Celebrate my name and we will learn it together. There has been much discrimination against Native Americans and a trend toward assimilation because of the bigotry, bias, and prejudice we face when we express our cultures, such as a seventh grader getting suspended a few years ago in Green Bay, WI, for the sole reason of speaking the Menominee language while at school. Languages are very important to the success of Indigenous people. I see that discrimination lessens as laws are put into place to protect us, but here we are 30 years after the passage of the Native American Languages Act. It takes time for institutions to really embrace changes in US policy, where what was once described as something worthless and deemed to be eradicated is now something cherished and valuable. It is a hard concept for most people to understand.