Lakota: The Revitalization of Language and the Persistence of Spirit

New programs to teach and restore the lost language and cultural heritage of the Lakota Sioux offers hope for the children who live on reservations where dire poverty, suicide, unemployment and substance abuse have become a way of life.

For more than a century the Lakota language endured a deliberate and systematic attempt to eradicate it.

A child watches a Color Guard Veteran's Pow Wow at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (Photo: Hamner_Fotos)

A child watches a Color Guard Veteran’s Pow Wow at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (Photo: Hamner_Fotos)

As a tool of colonization, the killing of language was a means of severing indigenous people’s ties to their culture, history and spirituality.

General Richard Henry Pratt in 1878 formed the first of many Indian boarding schools designed to “elevate” the Lakota to white culture. According to the Amnesty International article titled “Soul Wound: The Legacy of Native American Schools,” more than 100,000 Native Americans were “forced by the US government to attend Christian schools.”

The system, which began with President Ulysses Grant’s 1869 “peace policy,” continued well into the 20th century. Church officials, missionaries and local authorities took children as young as age 5 from their parents and shipped them off to Christian boarding schools. They were separated from their families most of the year, sometimes without a single family visit. Parents caught trying to hide their children lost food rations.

At the schools, native children were forced to worship as Christians. Their hair was cut, traditional clothing was banned and, according to “Soul Wound,” the elimination of native languages – considered an obstacle to the “acculturation” process – was a top priority. Teachers devised an extensive repertoire of punishments for uncooperative children, which included mouths being “scrubbed with lye and chlorine.”

The horror of the boarding school system actually went much further. In Canada, as Amnesty International explains, “a 2001 report by the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada documents the responsibility of the Roman Catholic Church, the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada and the federal government in the deaths of more than 50,000 native children in the Canadian residential school system.

The report explains how “church officials killed children by beating, poisoning, electric shock, starvation, prolonged exposure to sub-zero cold while naked, as well as medical experimentation, including the removal of organs and radiation exposure.

In 1928 Alberta passed legislation allowing school officials to forcibly sterilize native girls; British Columbia followed suit in 1933. There is no accurate record of forced sterilizations because hospital staff destroyed records in 1995 after police launched an investigation. But according to the testimony of a nurse in Alberta, doctors sterilized entire groups of native children when they reached puberty. The report also says that Canadian clergy, police and business and government officials “rented out” children from residential schools to pedophile rings.”

These methods of dehumanization are contributing factors to the intergenerational or historical trauma still affecting the Lakota Nation today.

There are no children on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota who are fluent speakers of the Lakota language.

Speaking About the Future

Thipiziwin Young is one of a group of Lakota who are now determined to change that.

Young, a Lakota second-language learner and Lakota language activities instructor, is working with a team in Standing Rock’s very first Lakota language-immersion classroom. The class consists of 12 preschool-age students, two language activities instructors and a first-language-fluent speaker. The class is held at Sitting Bull College.

The program is made possible under a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Native Americans. Students are as young as 3 years old. Everything, including all learning materials, is presented in the Lakota language. No English is permitted to be spoken in the room. The goal is to develop first-language acquisition skills that allow children to become natural thinkers, singers and speakers of Lakota in a fluid and imaginative way.

“It’s a reality that’s hard to swallow for our people,” Young told Truthout, about the dearth of Lakota-fluent children on Standing Rock. “There are some children on the reservations that have zero exposure to the Lakota language.”

Young, a mother of three, is a graduate of the Lakota Language Education Action Program, or LLEAP. The program is a collaboration between Sitting Bull College tribal leaders, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s education department and the Lakota Language Consortium.

According to its web site, “LLEAP courses offer intensive college-level study of the Lakota language. Graduating students will be at the forefront of educating the next generation of fluent speakers.”

Young is from Fort Yates, North Dakota, a community that has seen their language diminished more than most.

“How people look at us is how we often end up defining ourselves”, says Young. “We live in a place where all these negative statistics are sky-high and that’s our everyday reality”, she says, speaking of the high rates of suicide, poverty and unemployment throughout her reservation.

Undeterred, Young explains, “We do have fluent speakers and we do have the support of each other, of the people, of our tribal government; we have a lot on the positive side and the window of opportunity is open. We are prepared to use that to its fullest extent and ready to see a turnaround.”

Believing that her language is just “sleeping,” Young says, “We are capable of bringing our language to where it belongs in our everyday lives – in our homes, on our streets, in our stores and in our schools.”

Within the next ten years,” insists Young, “There will be fluent children in Lakota country once again. They will be the first in maybe three or four generations.”

While learning the language was once viewed as activism or resistance by some, Young believes that now “through the children and grandchildren coming up, we are just embracing who we are. We speak Lakota because we are Lakota.”

Jennifer Weston, a Hunkpapa Lakota, is program manager for Endangered Languages at Cultural Survival. The organization’sr mission states, “Cultural Survival works toward a world in which indigenous peoples speak their languages, live on their land, control their resources, maintain thriving cultures and participate in broader society on equal footing with other peoples. We provide advocacy to amplify indigenous voices around the world and provide support of their efforts to strengthen communities.”

Weston explained to Truthout that “most of our first-language speakers are probably in their mid- to late-50s now and we don’t have a very high life expectancy.” Standing Rock life expectancy is believed to be about 47 years for men, 58 for women.

Realizing that her mother, Marjorie Edwards, a fluent first-language Lakota speaker and teacher who passed away recently at age 59, was part of the last generation of first-language speakers, Weston has committed herself to the revitalization of indigenous languages. She writes and co-produces, which is an informative web site, dedicated to Native American language revitalization. It is the companion site to “We Still Live Here,” a film about the return of the Wampanoag language. Weston served as assistant producer.

“By the time we are in our 30s, we are going to be looking at a five- to ten-year window where we may not have any first-language speakers there to teach us,” says Weston.

For the Lakota, reviving their language goes far beyond communication.

“It relates to our long-term prospects in terms of improving health outcomes.” Weston says. “I don’t think it is any mistake, or any accident, that we’ve had such a rise in teen suicide. You know, that’s something that really wasn’t widely-known in our communities until the 80s and 90s, and today it’s still a big problem on a lot of reservations and that really correlates with generations of young people who grew up completely without language in their life, without a real tangible connection to Lakota spirituality and to our ceremonies.”

Weston explains, “A lot of us grew up attending sweats and the Sundance,” she says, referring to the sweat lodge and Sundance ceremonies of purification and renewal, “but if we are only able to participate in them in English, or if we have somebody translate them to us, there is a very real fear that we’re losing sight of a real connection to the bigger picture of our culture. That’s the link to our identities and making sure that kids are able to reconnect eventually with a more positive outlook for our communities … and really inspires kids to break the cycle of addictions that are so prevalent in our communities in terms of alcoholism and drug abuse.”

For Weston, “If you are really grounded in your language and your culture, and you’re more concerned about preparing for a particular ceremony,” then having the false sense of connection through drug or alcohol use isn’t needed. “That’s not a factor for you,” she says. “Drop-out rates for high school students are as high as 50 percent in a lot of tribal schools, and most of those kids don’t ever have the opportunity to learn their language in any significant way.”

Lakota as the Language of the Land

As Young explains, “I think it is a very beautiful thing to be Lakota or Dakota, to live here on our own lands and learning our own language; and I truly believe that our language is tied to our land. How many years our land has heard our language, I just believe it belongs here.”

To the Lakota, language is culture. The compartmentalization of all aspects of life is a foreign concept forced on them by western systems of thought, much the way that English was.

The Lakota language “gives children a sense of how our ancestors related to everything. We have the phrase, ‘mitakuye oyasin,’ that we all learn as a way of closing a prayer, or expressing ‘we are all related,'” Weston explained to Truthout.

“Once you start to learn the language you understand that that’s how people really treated one another. That’s how they treated everything that they did, whether it was hunting or preparing for a ceremony,” she says. “Everything was in relation to something else. You are behaving in a way that is respectful and cognizant of maintaining these relationships, and treating not only other people, but other beings and other parts of your environment, with that same sense of kinship.”

Young concludes, “Being a part of the language and learning the language has helped me have a really better life, a higher quality of life here in my home, where most people agree that it’s kind of a hard place to live and grow up; but there’s a lot of good things happening here in our homelands.” The revitalization of her language, for Young, “has really brought me a quality of life that I never before imagined was even possible.”

“I encourage everyone and anyone to learn the language.”

Maybe we all should.

This article first appeared on on October 8, 2015. © Truthout. Reprinted by permission.

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