Fluent Lakota speakers running out of time
Fluent Lakota speakers running out of time
Symposium searches for ways to preserve Native languages.
By Jomay Steen, Journal staff Thursday, November 13, 2008
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At Tuesday's opening of a three-day summit about revitalizing their
languages, the Native American speakers needed English at some point to
"We're really in a race against time," said Ryan Wilson of the National
Alliance to Save Native Languages.
The Lakota, Dakota, Nakota Language Summit: Uniting the Seven Council Fire
to Save the Language has brought together a mix of 400 Native American
educators, language experts and traditional fluent speakers. They are here
to determine how to keep their languages from disappearing.
The challenge is about more than words.
"Language is culture, and culture is language," said Chief Cameron Alexis
of the Nakota Sioux from west of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
That also was the message of spiritual leader Arvol Looking Horse. At the
summit's opening session, he prayed in Lakota and later spoke to the group
in English about the connections of language, Native culture and sacred
For the traditions at the very core of his people's lives to continue, the
language must be preserved, he said.
Since age 12, he has been the carrier of the sacred White Buffalo Calf
Pipe. At the summit, he did not show it or use it in ceremonies.
With the pipe, seven ceremonies introduced the Lakota nation to its values,
morals and traditions. Yet, language fluency is key to those ceremonies and
songs, he said.
"The language is used to conduct the ceremonies," he said.
And the ceremonies are part of the everyday culture and the distinction of
The shared fear is the loss of fluent Native speakers. Those people, mostly
elders, are dying; meanwhile, modern media pull youths' attention from
participation in traditional cultural activities, and accepted schoolhouse
teaching methods are failing.
On Wyoming's Wind River Reservation, people in the Arapaho Tribe counted on
teaching the language in school, similar to how math and other classes are
taught in a system approved by federal and state regulators.
"After 35 years of teaching at Wind River, not one student is a fluent
speaker. These methods, ... they're not working," Wilson said.
He left a lucrative job in Washington, D.C., at the urging of his
stepfather to return to the Wind River Reservation to battle for languages
that are critical for all Native cultures.
Wilson said his stepfather saw the answer to capturing fluency by teaching
children in a language-immersion school. With Wilson's help, an immersion
school was funded, built and opened in 12 months. But it wasn't easy.
"Language is an emotional issue," Wilson said.
It can prove to be a divisive community issue with a lot of politics
involved. "Don't get caught up in that debate. We don't have time for it,"
Wilson would prefer instructors concentrate on language, rather than
curricula brought to Natives by the state, federal government or the Bureau
of Indian Affairs.
"We have a right to define what is taught to our children," he said.
But unlike those children taught in his stepfather's school, Wilson is not
a fluent speaker.
Chief Alexis said most of his tribe's members ages 35 and older were fluent
in Nakota, but young people and students, ages 25 and younger, spoke only a
few basic words.
"We have to get back to our roots. Our young people have to be proud of who
they are," he said.
Stephanie Charging Eagle agreed. Lakota was her first language, and she
learned English at school, and she said she she is thankful for both
languages because they instill in her a higher plain of thinking.
"We're part of a global community of language," she said.
Charging Eagle was sympathetic to those who experienced the boarding school
punishments and shame when speaking their Native language. However, she
also believes that a nation and its individual members can move beyond
"One thing that I have learned is that you have to put this into
perspective. I have to ask myself, 'How do I go forward?'" she said.
Healing, spirituality, family units, education are all connected with
language, she said. It is tied to culture that is unique in the entire
Language shouldn't be drudgery, but a revelation, she said. "We are going
to learn Lakota because that is who we are."
Contact Jomay Steen at 394-8418 or jomay.steen@....