Imperialism and the Summer Institute of Linguistics

Gilberto López y Rivas/Part I

It is a commonplace (and for some, mere rhetoric) to affirm that U.S. imperialism is the enemy of the peoples of the world. However, the myriad methods and techniques, the complex variety of procedures that the U.S. government has used to impose its hegemony are not well known. The glorified image of “covert actions” that the film and mass media have been responsible for disseminating is only a manipulated and reduced sample of the activities of its enormous planetary apparatus of surveillance and repression.

The U.S. government works with unlimited resources, with a gigantic army of scientific mercenaries of the most varied professions, taking advantage of the most sophisticated technical advances. The image of the CIA agent, rescuing the “free world” from revolutionary cataclysms, hides a fundamental fact: the multifaceted intellectual team behind each operative agent, as well as the motley array of religious, journalistic and cultural institutions that are at the service of or assist the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. Therefore, it is important to recall the history of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), its essential characteristics, its actions in a strategic sector of our national societies: the indigenous peoples.

The establishment of Summer Linguistics is linked to William Cameron Townsend. This character became a missionary in 1917, moving to Guatemala with the objective of introducing the Bible among the Kaqchikel Indians. Here he realized that, if this text was not made available in the native language, the work of conversion was impossible, and from this experience arose the idea of translating this text into all the languages of the indigenous groups of the underdeveloped world.

In 1933 he visited Mexico and received the support of Moisés Sáenz, a Protestant anthropologist, who suggested that he repeat his Guatemalan experience. The missionary’s stay was definitive in the creation of a training center for young linguists willing to do religious work, which was first established in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas. In 1935, Townsend and his group began to work in the indigenous areas of our country (Mexico).

In 1942, SIL began its incursion into universities, which gave it “scientific” status, first at Oklahoma University. In just a few years one could find institute study centers in universities in Canada, Australia, West Germany, Mexico, etcetera. In 1947, another stage in the expansion of SIL began with the formation of what was called the Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (Jaars), radio and aerial communication services, with pilots with extensive military experience.

This complex organization was financed by donations from churches, individuals, foundations of various origins, transnational companies such as Shell, as well as the International Development Agency, the U.S. State, Health, Education and Public Assistance Departments.

SIL’s methods of operation followed a similar pattern in all countries, in accordance with political, legal and local conditions. Members of the organization were required to sign a loyalty oath, which was renewed every six years. For training, they worked in a two-person team, often married couples, with a university education and a well-proven capacity for religious commitment. Where they settled, they built a house (not necessarily modest, as we observed in Chiapas) and with the necessary communication and transportation infrastructure with a central regional base. Through salaried informants, generally young people, the missionaries were introduced to the language and culture of the group. The “informants” were trained in such a way that they became the first converts to initiate or assist a religious and ideological campaign with the materials prepared by SIL. These publications were generally Protestant hymns or native myths, conveniently altered according to the ideological interests of the missionaries.

The worldwide distribution of this organization in the 1970s was as follows: in 1977, it had 3,700 people working in 675 languages in 29 countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Oceania. It was established in Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Honduras and Panama. It worked intensely in Vietnam, Kampuchea and the Philippines, precisely at the time when these peoples were waging liberation struggles; one missionary messianically affirmed, “We have strengthened our lines with new members; we have entered new tribes and we look to God to be able to buy a new headquarters in Saigon and we trust in Him to advance in Kampuchea and other new tribes. It is He who guides us.”

Originally published in La Jornada on March 31st, 2023.

Part II

Gilberto López y Rivas /II y última

The ideological content of the materials produced and distributed by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), as well as its action in the economic, political and social spheres, formed a coherent structure, whose ideological substratum was of a religious nature, although it responded to a defined political conception. The emphasis of its ideology was on: 1) inculcating and reinforcing recalcitrant individualism and voluntarism, banishing any idea of community organization and social solidarity; 2) fostering subservience and disinterest in political struggle. A SIL missionary in Chiapas condemned the struggle for land, arguing that it was a sin of envy.

The SIL was organized by the end of the 1940s in three complementary sections; one in the United States, Canada and West Germany that published religious materials; another section, or Summer Institute of Linguistics, that carried out technical and linguistic work, and the preparation of missionaries; the third, transportation and communication.

The SIL was clear in its ideological messages regarding the social struggle: If any of you are killed by the caciques, the responsibility of those who survive is to bury the dead. You must not exercise vengeance. God is the one who established the authority of the bosses over us. Therefore, we should pray for them. They are part of a divine plan….. God is in control of things and always works for the good of us. It is not possible for someone to kill us before God orders our return to his kingdom. If we are killed, we should think that this is part of the Lord’s wishes, since He is above all things.The missionaries also tried to reinforce the role of the ideal worker for capital: a phrase from one of the materials advises the indigenous children: “Whenever one wants to work with pleasure, if not with reluctance, things happen to him… always obey, so that you will be good workers when you grow up.”

Another task carried out by SIL missionaries was to support and idealize the political, administrative and representative apparatuses of the host states. The Mexican state was represented as democratic, sovereign, protective, and merciful to the poor.

SIL also cooperated in the introduction of transnational products to indigenous regions, encouraging superfluous consumerism. SIL distributed a booklet dedicated to indigenous mothers that included 36 recipes, from hors d’oeuvres to desserts, with readily available ingredients such as shrimp, mushrooms, cream and other delicacies.

In their innocent work of evangelization of the natives of the world, the only mention of a foreign country is that of the United States, represented as the paradise made reality on Earth, the ideal society of the people chosen by God.

The influence and cultural penetration was evident in the converts in the areas we visited in Mexico, during the investigation of the (College of Ethnologist and Social Anthropologists) Colegio de Etnólogos y Antropólogos Sociales AC, as well as in the tasks of research, information gathering, surveillance and communication, in the training camp for survival in the jungle.

The linguists investigated how to cross rivers in times of flooding, food and appropriate ways of life, local medicines, routes, etcetera. The use of this research for the anti-guerrilla struggle was clear, as was the participation of the SIL in the repression of popular movements. The best known case is that of Planas, in Colombia, a region occupied by the Guajibos, who organized a broad mass movement to defend their lands in 1970, in the face of the violent dispossession of their resources by the Colombian State and the International Development Agency. SIL played an important role in providing air and radio support to the troops in charge of clearing the area of indigenous people.

On the other hand, SIL played a role for transnationals in natural and strategic resources. Even on maps, the overlapping of regions controlled by SIL and the extractive projects of transnational companies was conspicuous. In Ecuador, it occupied the same regions as Georgia Pacific and Texaco-Gulf. In Colombia, the SIL was associated with marijuana trafficking and production, diamond and mineral trafficking, and the export of flora and fauna to the United States. The missionaries, at the same time, carried out other types of activities, such as the sterilization of indigenous women.

Thus, we have witnessed the multifaceted use of SIL for the strategic and tactical purposes of imperialism. This agency invaded the territories of native peoples and coordinated its activities with local governments in accordance with a global project. It is worth remembering this history.

Originally published in La Jornada on April 14th, 2023.

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