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Fluent Lakota speakers running out of time

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.rapidcityjournal.com/articles/2008/11/13/news/top/doc491a708a4e4 a3285160382.txt Fluent Lakota speakers running out of time Symposium searches for
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 3, 2008

      Fluent Lakota speakers running out of time
      Symposium searches for ways to preserve Native languages.

      By Jomay Steen, Journal staff Thursday, November 13, 2008

      8 comment(s) Normal Size Increase font Size

      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
      being Native.

      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,"
      he said.

      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
      those experiences.

      "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@....
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