In James Collins’ “Our Ideology and Theirs,” the author describes the reemergence and reinvigoration of the culture of the Tolowa Native Americans, a largely decimated population that resides in Northern California. Collins mainly focuses on the resurrection of the Tolowa language, a trend that had increased in popularity during the two decades preceding the article’s publication. He explores the intricacies of bringing back a language that is nearly extinct, and how approaching this process from an academic standpoint isn’t necessarily compatible with the desires and needs of the community to which the language is historically relevant.
Collins depicts the Tolowa community as a group of “about 400-500 people […] similar to the surrounding White, rural working-class population […] But they are dark-complected, or at least identifiably ‘Indian’, and hang together more with other Indians than Whites; they have fishing rights […]; they go to feather dances and salmon bakes” (406). In addition, Tolowa students are offered a course in the Tolowa language during high school. Collins marvels at the “persistence” of native cultural markers, even after the group has been exposed to anglicized practices continuously for centuries (406).
Such persistence has been exemplified by the reinvigoration of the Tolowa language (as noted above). With few native speakers still alive (and that number decreasing rapidly) what Collins refers to as “the art of remembering” becomes particularly challenging (409). That is to say, language use and memories associated with that language are inextricably linked and having (or lacking) said memories changes the way one uses and understands a language dramatically. Without native speakers who have been socialized under circumstances to foster these special understandings, the language will change.
The importance of words and, consequently, memories, is what Collins seems to assert will set apart those who study languages academically and those who learn them socially. While linguists usually focus on grammar, he says, speakers tend to overlook grammar and instead, concentrate on lexicon. For the Tolowa and many other Native American populations, this lexicon includes countless names for aspects of nature (“a name for every riffle in the creek” (408)). Because of the massive amount of words that have vanished in time, new speakers must discover “lost words” through research and conversations with older native speakers.
The existence and use of words have helped the Tolowa address the community’s identity (like any other society associated with a specific language might do). However, this is also a process that can be imposed from the outside in. Word usage, sound and variation are an extremely powerful tool used to map a certain identity onto a society. Native Americans are a good example of this process. One of the strongest stereotypes associated with the Native American population in the United States is a group with close ties to nature, perhaps in part due to the lexicon of their languages. Initially this idea may seem rather benign but the connotations of the stereotype can have different results. Some portrayals of Native Americans as nature loving can appear positive but actually have underlying implications that are offensive or ignorant. An example of this is an anti-pollution PSA that came out shortly before Collins began his research:
Initially it seems that the Native American man featured in the commercial is almost heroic, with a “deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country” opposed to the harmful effects of pollution. However, his downtrodden demeanor says otherwise. He is really being portrayed as helpless and weak, understanding the “better” way of doing things but unable to implement any real change. In addition, his mode of transportation and dress contrast strongly with those of the polluters, presumably mainstream society. Though the carbon footprint left by his canoe is likely far smaller than that of the cars on the freeway, the use of this stereotypical Native American symbol is both discriminatory and suggests that Native Americans don’t have access to modern conveniences and technology; that they are somehow behind, perhaps too intertwined with nature. The choice of clothing only worsens this effect, and is basically irrelevant to the message of the PSA. At the end of the clip, the Native American man is crying, again an act many people may associate with weakness. Though the association between Native Americans and nature is supposed to be a positive one, the depiction is ultimately negative, indicating vulnerability, dependency and marginalization with respect to the rest of society.
Perhaps worse than the type of depiction mentioned above are outright descriptions of Native Americans as barbaric, which occur less frequently now than they have in the past but historically have often been used. This kind of portrayal also relates to the concept of Native Americans being connected to nature, a strong aspect of their language as well as cultural practices. By being deeply in touch with nature, stereotypes of almost animalistic behavior regarding Native Americans have developed. These stereotypes have been used to justify the claiming of Native American land (because it wasn’t being used for civilized purposes) and the suppression of Native Americans in general. As a tool for rallying support for domination of Native Americans, these concepts have been particularly useful and successful.
In addition, the use of these stereotypes of “typical” Native Americans have caused tension among that community in terms of whether or not to adhere to these ideas. While looking through Native American propaganda and political cartoons, I happened upon a “post secret” postcard that seems to sum up the issue rather well.
The man pictured is surrounded by nature, wearing traditional Native American garb and playing what appears to be a Native American instrument. The “secret” reads “Because I don’t fit the stereotypes, I feel fraudulent and invisible.” This suggests that in marginalized groups like Native Americans, there is a necessity to embody others’ expectations (usually stereotypes) in order to have a place, any place, in society. The standard is inapplicable in this case. Perhaps partially for this reason (among others), the Tolowa community chose to reinvigorate its culture and language. This language renaissance could, in part, be used to reaffirm their place in society that they seem rather removed from. This, of course, is pure guesswork but interesting to consider nonetheless.