Cherokee chief denounces ‘official English’ legislation

By Tim Talley
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (AP) 4-08

The chief of the Cherokee Nation said legislation that would make English Oklahoma’s official language opens up old wounds for American Indians, who in the past were herded into boarding schools and forced to speak English instead of their native language.

Principal Chief Chad Smith was honored by the state House and Senate one day after the “official English” measure was approved by a state House committee at a meeting during which Smith was denied an opportunity to express his opposition to the bill’s goal of forcing immigrants to assimilate by speaking English.

“It’s probably one of those wounds to tear open and pour salt in,” said Smith, who said members of his own family were among the thousands of American Indians who were forced into boarding schools in Oklahoma and prohibited from speaking their languages or practicing their cultural traditions.

Consequently, Smith said, there are no fluent speakers of the Cherokee language under the age of 45 other than those who have participated in language immersion programs.

“I clearly understand what happens with English as the official language,” Smith said. “This is a step backward, not a step forward. The great power of the state should be used more constructively.”

Meanwhile, House Speaker Chris Benge – a member of the Cherokee tribe – met with Smith and said he thinks it is unfortunate he was not allowed to speak during a recent meeting of the General Government and Transportation Committee.

“I just expressed to him that I thought it was unfortunate,” said Benge, R-Tulsa. “I always try to listen. I did so with the chief. I think I can understand where he is coming from.”

In spite of Smith’s opposition, Benge said he believes the “official English” bill by Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, will be heard on the House floor. Terrill has said the bill carves out exceptions for tribal languages and language programs and will not impact them.

Benge said committee rules give its chairman, Rep. Guy Liebmann, R-Oklahoma City, some discretion in deciding whether members of the public can address committee members but that he disagrees with Liebmann’s assertion during the meeting that it was “not a public meeting.”

“I see them as public meetings,” Benge said.

Smith received a standing ovation from House members when Benge introduced him on the House floor. Smith did not directly address the “official English” legislation but referred to the Cherokee language and spoke a Cherokee word, “gadugi,” which means come together and work for the benefit of the community.

“Embedded in our language is a great intelligence,” Smith said.

Afterward, Liebmann went to the front of the House chamber, shook Smith’s hand and spoke to him.

“I somewhat apologized to him,” Liebmann said later. He said that had he known before the start of the meeting that Smith wished to speak on the bill he would have permitted it.

Instead, Liebmann said he decided to limit public discussion because there were 19 bills on the meeting’s agenda and it would make the meeting more lengthy.

“Once I open it up to the outside, there’s no end to it,” he said.