Words Have a Past: The English Language, Colonialism, and the Newspapers of Indian Boarding Schools

By Jane Griffith

© 2019

For nearly 100 years, Indian boarding schools in Canada and the US produced newspapers read by white settlers, government officials, and Indigenous parents. These newspapers were used as a settler colonial tool, yet within these tightly controlled narratives there also existed sites of resistance. This book traces colonial narratives of language, time, and place from the nineteenth-century to the present day, post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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  • Division: Scholarly Publishing
  • World Rights
  • Page Count: 328 pages
  • Dimensions: 6.0in x 0.8in x 9.0in
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Quick Overview

Words Have a Past traces settler colonial narratives represented in newspapers produced in late nineteenth-century Indian boarding schools.

Words Have a Past: The English Language, Colonialism, and the Newspapers of Indian Boarding Schools

By Jane Griffith

© 2019

For nearly 100 years, Indian boarding schools in Canada and the US produced newspapers read by white settlers, government officials, and Indigenous parents. These newspapers were used as a settler colonial tool, yet within these tightly controlled narratives there also existed sites of resistance. This book traces colonial narratives of language, time, and place from the nineteenth-century to the present day, post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Product Details

  • Division: Scholarly Publishing
  • World Rights
  • Page Count: 328 pages
  • Dimensions: 6.0in x 0.8in x 9.0in
  • Reviews

    "Words Have a Past is an outstanding piece of scholarship that brings impressive levels of depth and rigor to the study of Canadian Indigenous boarding schools. It sheds new light on the destructive patterns of settler colonialism by examining school newspapers and their representations of the assimilative project. In so doing, it brings to the forefront the various actors, diverse motivations, misrepresentations, and resistances that went into reporting on Indigenous Boarding Schools."


    Andrew Woolford, Department of Sociology, University of Manitoba
  • Author Information

    Jane Griffith is Assistant Professor in the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University in Toronto.
  • Table of contents

    1. Bury the Lede: Introduction
    2. Printer’s Devil: The Trade of Newspapers
    3. Indigenous Languages Did Not Disappear: English Language Instruction
    4. "Getting Indian Words": Representations of Indigenous Languages
    5. Ahead by a Century: Time on Paper
    6. Anachronism: Reading the Nineteenth Century Today
    7. Layout: Space, Place, and Land
    8. Concluding Thoughts

  • Read An Excerpt

    8 Concluding Thoughts

    In 2012, a student was suspended from her parochial school in Wisconsin for speaking Menominee. When the twelve-year-old girl (whose grandmother directed the Menominee Language Program) was found teaching a friend how to say “hello” and “I love you,” her non- Indigenous teacher retorted: “You are not to speak like that! How do I know you’re not saying something bad? How would you like it if I spoke in Polish and you didn’t understand?” (ICTMN Staff, 2014). In this response the teacher imposed an English-only rule, assumed what the student said was bad, proposed English as a lingua franca, and equated a European language with an Indigenous one.

    One year after this news story, I was struck by graffiti on the backside of a university building in Toronto. It read: “english broke my father’s confidence. We will break English”. The first “english” is triply defiant: not only does it begin both a proper noun and a sentence with a lowercase “e,” the double underline (a copy editor’s notation for “make lowercase”) insists the grammatical transgression is not a typo. The father may have been a former residential school student. Perhaps he was a newcomer to Canada facing employment barriers. Maybe he had been offered problematic “accent training.” Or, the father was a university student, written off by professors for his “non-standard” English. The child is determined to “break” the language, but this second use of “English” is capitalized, as if to say the breaking hasn’t happened yet. It is as if English had not yet been dethroned, but the intention had been notated.

    In the summer of 2014, a three-year exhibit opened on the thirtyfour Indigenous languages within the borders of what is currently called British Columbia at the provincial museum. The “Our Living Languages” exhibit highlights the beauty and complexity of these languages through audio and visual and includes a language forest and language cocoon. In addition to showcasing the successes of communities, the space also describes what it labels “disruptions”: separation from land, bans on ceremonies, and theft of children. The exhibit names specific government acts and policies that directly impacted the ability for Indigenous languages to thrive. The space also displays latchkeys made from sardine cans by students of Kamloops and Kuper Island Schools, used to access otherwise restricted food. This exhibit reframes Indigenous languages not as inexplicably disappearing but as stolen through concrete, nameable actions. It highlights the immense resistance of Indigenous peoples and pushes against the museum’s larger narratives (like other provincial museums) of settler colonialism outside of this exhibit – the “our” in the exhibit’s title is different from the same pronoun in the title of Shingwauk Home’s newspaper. This museum shares the same physical structure as BC’s provincial archives, where I accessed Kitamaat Home’s newspaper and learned of the school’s efforts to enforce the English language and promote the very disruptions this exhibit now condemns. In a review of the exhibit, the local newspaper quotes Mike Willie, Kwak’wala language teacher, who explains how his language unlike English is verb based and action oriented – that to translate “child” means “my reason for breathing” (Watts, 2014).

    In June 2015 Indigenous languages again made headlines with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s ninety-four calls to action six months before the final report. The calls include that the federal government acknowledge language as an Aboriginal right and that it develop an Aboriginal Languages Act. Another call included that post-secondary institutions develop programs in Indigenous languages. The report ties these calls to rights and treaties, insisting on the need for adequate funding and for Indigenous peoples to lead these language programs. The act appears to be currently in development, headed by parliamentary secretary to the minister of Canadian heritage (Morin, 2017). How will invoking Canadian heritage inflect such an act? Citing international examples of language legislation, many are advising that any language act in Canada must go beyond aspirations and symbols (L. Fontaine, Leitch, Nicholas, and de Varennes, 2017).

    That same summer the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, called for the nearly sixty Indigenous languages spoken within what is called Canada to be national languages. Responses were swift, as settler commentators became bogged down by the feasibility of what Bellegarde proposed. As one journalist in the Calgary Herald wrote, “If languages are dying out and remaining unlearned despite the millions of dollars spent annually on teaching and preserving them,” then “at some point, people have to take advantage of the opportunities offered” (Lakritz, 2015). This response invokes the trope of the unappreciated handout, leaves out that government funding is woefully inadequate, and ignores the colonial contexts of English literacy that this book discusses. Similarly, CBC radio aired a program with the polemic title, “Do First Nations Have a Right to Indigenous Language Schools?” (The 180, 2015). The guest host asked:

    • “What would an entire education, though, in a First Nations language accomplish that could not be accomplished with classes teaching that language?”
    • “In Canadian society … there’s an expectation that people will be fluent and competent in either French or English. Would an education purely in a First Nations language – would that prepare a student for life in Canada?”
    • “How does broader society benefit over this?”
    • “What is in it for English and French Canada if First Nations have this right?”

    Not all of the host’s questions were this pointed, but these four are telling. The host’s biggest concerns are how Indigenous children will participate in “modern” society without English and how non- Indigenous people will benefit. These reactions ignore the history of why Indigenous languages are under threat. Focusing on feasibility and cost ignores Indigenous languages as a right. And, these questions recentre white settler language rights and elide the broader entanglement of English and colonialism, leaving alone the history of how the English language (and, though outside of this book’s scope, French) was naturalized as official.