Ethnicity Studies · Native American Studies

“Language is only a convenience”: Zitkala-Ša and Empowerment Rhetoric

Zitkala-Ša, a staunch advocate for the rights of Native Americans in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, said,

We sometimes think we cannot speak the English language well and we cannot talk in the conference. That is not it. You can tell us what is in your heart. Use the words that are put in  your mouth. Use the words that come to you, that which is in the heart and mind. We come to commune with our minds, with our hearts. Do not sit back because you think that you cannot speak English well. Let us hear from those who do not speak it at all, they can have interpreters. We want to hear from the minds and hearts of our Indian people. Language is only a convenience, just like a coat is a convenience, and it is not so important as your mind and your heart.

These words are part of her “Address by the Secretary-Treasurer, Society of American Indians Annual Convention” in the summer of 1919. In this address, she urges her fellow American Indians, her brothers and sisters, to take part in the ongoing work for their betterment, and also for their political rights. She encourages the men in attendance to, next year, bring their sisters and wives. She encourages the participation of all American Indians, regardless of gender, because it is essential that they organize. 

This passage regarding language struck me as particularly powerful, because of its definition: “Language is only a convenience.” For American Indians, language was the primary way in which the early settlers and then, later, the official government of the settler-colonists first made treaties and then violated them, turning the American Indian population into wards of the state without any political say.  For her to say this is significant. Zitkala-Ša, also known as Gertrude Bonin, went through the boarding school system and even taught at a boarding school. She describes in other writing her early experiences at the boarding school, before she and most of her companions had any grasp of English.  Having played in the snow after being told not to, the children are called in by one of the “paleface” teachers.  Judewin, the one with the most English at her command, advises them all to answer “no” to whatever they are asked. Their friend, Thowin, following Judewin’s advice, enrages the teacher in a scene that could be comical if it didn’t result in a cruel beating. 

With an angry exclamation, the woman gave her a hard spanking. Then she stopped to say something. Judewin said it was this: ‘Are you going to obey my word the next time?’

Thowin answered again with the only word at her command, ‘No.’

This time the woman meant her blows to smart, for the poor frightened girl shrieked at the top of her voice. In the midst of the whipping the blows ceased abruptly, and the woman asked another question: ‘Are you going to fall in the snow again?’

Thowin gave her bad password another trial. We heard her say feebly, ‘No! No!’

With this the woman hid away her half-worn slipper, and led the child out, stroking her black shorn head. Perhaps it occurred to her that brute force is not the solution for such a problem. She did nothing to Judewin or to me. She only returned to us our unhappy comrade, and left us alone in the room.

This scene, along with several others recounted by Zitkala-Ša and others about miscommunications and mistreatment, purposeful and otherwise, stayed firmly in my mind as I read her address, her statement “Language is only a convenience, just like a coat is a convenience, and it is not so important as your mind and your heart.” Her words, meant to encourage her fellows to speak, are powerful, yet there is an extreme irony in them. While a coat may only be a convenience, one can also die from exposure without the proper clothing. 

Her goal, of course, was to get as many American Indians involved in the Society of American Indians as she could, and her urging for them to speak and that others would interpret for them is key. The sense of community and activity she called for required that all American Indians speak, and that all of them work to help each other. So, her definition of language as a convenience, while fraught with irony, serves to empower her fellows to speak what is in their heads and hearts, because, after all, what is in their heads and hearts is what determines who they are, more so than the language they speak.  She was fiercely encouraging their sense of personal worth, their sense of hope through her definition of language. 

That is powerful rhetoric, and a powerful definition of language. 

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