'I kind of have a debt to repay'


Dr. Shannon Bischoff smiles at Central Michigan University students Monday, Oct. 10 at the Sarah and Daniel Opperman Auditorium.

As part of Central Michigan University’s Indigenous Peoples Day speaker series on Oct. 10, Dr. Shannon Bischoff spoke at the Sarah and Daniel Opperman Auditorium in Park Library on Indigenous language revitalization. 

According to his biography on Purdue University Fort Wayne’s website, Dr. Bischoff is currently a linguistics professor and did his Ph.D. work in Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Arizona and the University of Tokyo. His work at Purdue University Fort Wayne includes linguistic anthropology as well as mathematical and computational linguistics. 

In addition, he is a member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) International Decade of Indigenous Languages Regional Committee.    

Dr. Bischoff began his speech by going into his family’s history. His ancestors were Puritans from the Netherlands who owned the Speedwell, a sister ship to the Mayflower which sailed from England to what is now America in 1620. Bischoff explained they owned indigenous slaves and how they died while serving his family. 

“I feel compelled to serve others because of this history," Dr. Bischoff said. "I'm very fortunate that I'm here today. But it was at the expense of other people. So I kind of have a debt to repay. And that's why I'm here.” 

In the 1800s, Bischoff said the Civilization Fund Act of 1819 laid the groundwork for future legislation that would cause much of the Native American culture to disappear.

“They received funding to start schools and a lot of these schools were started in the community, some of them are boarding schools," Dr. Bischoff said. "The goal was specifically to civilize these indigenous people and civilizing them meant getting them to move into Western-style homes, getting them to adopt Western style culture, and getting them to speak English, which in turn would destroy their culture.” 

Events such as the Trail of Tears in 1830 would only continue “to exterminate the language and the culture of the indigenous people,” Dr. Bischoff said. 

“In 1830, we had the Indigenous Indian Removal Act, and this is famously colloquially known as the Trail of Tears," he said. "And this was forced movement of indigenous peoples off their land to what was then called Indian Territory -- today [known as], modern Oklahoma…and thousands of indigenous people died in the forced marches to Indian territory”. 

Dr. Bischoff mentioned how universities such as Michigan State and Purdue University in Indiana were founded as land-grant schools through the Morrill Land-Grant Act in 1862 by taking land from indigenous people and selling it. 

According to Dr. Bischoff, federal policy on the rights of indigenous people declined through the 1950s to the 2000s. The No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 took funding from indigenous communities who were teaching their children in their native language when states began requiring students to take state assessments in English. 

In 2011, a grassroots organization in California began pushing for the Seal of Biliteracy, an award granted to high school graduates who learned two or more languages while in school, Dr. Bischoff said. States across the country soon began adopting this legislation.

By 2019 and 2020 indigenous communities began to resurrect their native languages and once again instruct their students in their mother tongue. Dr. Bischoff said that research has shown that Indigenous youth who have this award are likely to get better jobs with higher-paying salaries. 

Kirsten Hoeksema, a sophomore in recreation event management that attended Dr. Bischoff's speech said she found it to be "really sad." 

"I’m not really educated on this topic and I'm happy that there's been more steps in recent years to be more inclusive and better to these communities that are not as privileged as I am,” Hoeksema said.

A student had asked Dr. Bischoff if his debt to the indigenous people who his family enslaved and helped them survive will ever be repaid and he said no. 

“You know, everybody has a debt to humanity, right?" he said. "Because life is a collaborative effort. Nobody gets anywhere by themselves. We owe everybody gratitude and we have a responsibility to demonstrate that gratitude and to use the talents and the gifts and the resources that we have been given. I will never pay the debt that I owe other human beings. The whole purpose of life is to be grateful and to return the gifts that you've been given to others”.