The Power of Oral Languages

Codex Boturini, 16th Century

Every word we utter, in any language, is a gift from the Creator. Spoken words carried by breath vibrations, is evident as early as the 16th Century on the Codex Boturini. 

The Hopi Way of Life has survived hundreds of years based on an oral tradition, the spoken word, supplemented by sign language. The brain of our ancestors and grandmothers possessed an encyclopedic command of language. This became our oral language, a birthright guiding the Hopi Way of Life.

As the Hopi encountered strangers, friendly and foe, we also learned sign language to communicate. Information was shared through stories, songs, ceremonies, body motions, and rituals. Those who do not understand this oral language call it myth.

Charles Loloma, 1940, Heard Museum

Then another stranger arrived who made strange marks with an implement or required our thumbprints. Our ancestors rejected this forced way of communicating our name, clan and home place. 

The negative consequence of a forced transition from an oral tradition to the written word is starkly evident in a timeworn conflict between Western Culture and First Peoples of this American Continent, that is the U.S. Federal Court Systems.

Wordsmith-ing became a sharp blade. English is not of indigenous origin. The root words of English originated on another continent. A wrong word, wrong sentence, misstatement or a word not said is death to the Hopi Way of Life. 

Hopi Handmade knife with bone handle, and leather pouch

“Indian Tribes” are recognized in the U. S. Constitution. The Federal Government must “treat” with the Indians under the Commerce Clause. This written system is codified in Treaties, Executive Orders and Reservations of Land.

The Hopi “Reserve” was established by Executive Order in 1880 and the Hopi Constitution was written by a White Man and adopted in 1934. 

Stark examples of the negative consequences of the use of the written word is found in the highest laws of the land, the U. S. Supreme Court and lower federal courts. 

The Hopi-Navajo Land Dispute was created by one sentence in the 1880 Executive Order, “and other Indians located thereon…”

“Chief Justice Marshall termed tribes “domestic dependent nations,” with the federal/tribal relationship resembling “that of a ward to his guardian.”

in common with all citizens of the United States”, Treaty With The Makah, 1855

The “Full Spirit of the Law”, as understood by the First Peoples, must be based on the original spoken language. It would be earth shaking to read a federal court decision written in the language of any Indian Nation!

The role of the legislative analyst, writer, and researcher is paramount to change the laws written on behalf of U.S. Tribal Nations. Indian professionals who know how to read, write and speak the original languages must be tasked to begin changing the paradigm of law making based on the written word.

I hope to see this in my lifetime.

Recommended reading:

The Whaler and the Girl in the Deadfall, Mahlon E Krebel

The Chinook Jargon We Never Knew (But will) David Robertson

One Comment on “The Power of Oral Languages

  1. I totally agree with your “points” on the need to develop our “own” laws” with full access of Hopi Knowledge to guide us. While Hopi Knowledge may be limited today, it is still present here in our Way of Life. I am also anxious to start this process of codifying our laws. Regards, Sakhongvaiya

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