Not understanding is no excuse for oppression

Words are a wonderful thing. They allow us to share so much of our lives with the rest of the world. Whether you’re saying “Good morning,” “Buenos dias,” “Bonjour,” or “’Sup?” you’re communicating and bringing people into your life.

Communication usually works best when you can understand each other, but with dozens of languages in the world, it’s a sure bet not everyone will be on the same page. Some people know two or three languages, which helps out, but when you’re hearing a language you don’t understand, it can be frustrating.

Still, you shouldn’t penalize someone for your lack of understanding.

Recently, the local Catholic school found itself in trouble when it did just that. Miranda Washinawatok, a young Menominee girl who plays on her school’s basketball team, spoke some of her native tongue to fellow classmates within earshot of a teacher, and before she knew it, she was benched because of it.

A Sacred Heart Catholic School official originally claimed Washinawatok was benched because of an “attitude issue.” Fast forward to the middle of this week, and the principal, Dan Minter, sent home a letter of apology for what happened, vowing to begin a new cultural awareness program.

Not surprisingly, the girl’s mother does not believe the letter has gone far enough and wants more done. The news has made it to Green Bay’s ABC station and even was broadcast on CNN, which now makes two schools that have recently been showcased on the national stage, and not in a positive light.

The whole incident struck a chord of déjà vu with me, as it reminded me of an incident with a language barrier in the last community I lived, and that blew up into a lawsuit that almost swallowed a small business whole.

Before moving to Wisconsin, I lived near Lake Powell in a tiny town called Page, Ariz. Prior to my arrival, the owner of RD’s, the local burger joint, had a problem on his hands. The female employees were being sexually harassed by the male employees, who spoke in a language the owner did not know. His solution—require the employees to speak English when they worked.

Like the teacher in Shawano, the burger shop owner was white. Like the young girl, some of the employees did not like the idea of being required to suppress their native tongue. Like the Catholic school, the business was a private entity. That did not stop the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from filing a lawsuit that lasted seven years.

Fortunately, RD’s did not fold—the place had the best fries and shakes in town. However, that was mainly due to the assistance of the Mountain States Legal Foundation and ProEnglish; the EEOC probably would have eaten RD’s and owner Richard Kidman alive.

The same fate could befall Sacred Heart Catholic School if officials are not careful. Obviously, the letter this week was a good first step. Now, more work needs to be done to heal the racial tension that had erupted.

From some of the research I’ve done into Shawano’s past, this is the not the first time that racial tensions have approached a boiling point. Sacred Heart has a 60 percent Menominee population—an interesting dynamic for a private, off-reservation school. We are not living in the 19th and early 20th century, when America did everything it could to rob Natives of their cultural identity, including punishment for not being “white.”

I certainly understand the need for everyone to know English in this country, as it is our common language. Still, we are a cultural melting pot, and just because it is vital to know the English language to function in this country, we do not have the right to make the language oppress a person’s traditional tongue. There is room for all languages, no matter where you live.

Let’s hope Sacred Heart finds a way to embrace the Menominee language and culture. We already have one school that’s putting Shawano in a poor light nationally and not moving in the right direction. Sacred Heart doesn’t need to walk that path.

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