Saving Culture

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Tue Sep 9 17:12:04 UTC 2003

DORREEN YELLOW BIRD COLUMN: Saving culture depends on saving languages

My uncle, a prominent medicine man, died about 14 years ago. When he died,
he took his knowledge of an important Sahnish or Arikara ceremony with him.
He told several young men, who were trainees, that for him to teach them
this ceremony, they needed to know the Sahnish language. They knew only
"words" and not the speaking language.

The medicine man's refusal to teach his ceremony to these young men because
they weren't fluent in the language resulted in his way of the ceremony
being lost.

One of my aunts, who is Catholic but also believes in the Native way of
life, said that the ceremonies shouldn't be limited to the Native language.
Certainly, God wouldn't understand only one language, she said.

She has a good point that is difficult to counter.When the issue of whether
the Creator could understand all languages was asked of my uncle, he said,
yes, their God, our Creator, the Supreme Being is powerful. It is we who
might have difficulty communicating with the Spirit because different
languages differ in impact and meaning.

Take, for example, a joke told in Sahnish and then retold in English. In
the Sahnish language it is funny, but when translated it loses its punch -
the translated words just don't provide the same meaning.

So, when we talk to the Creator in a language different than how we were
taught, the meaning may change, he said. The Creator does understand all
languages, but the ceremonies were given to us in Sahnish and are best
practiced that way, he told me.

That communication dilemma is reaching a critical point on many
reservations. In fact, on some reservations, the language has all but

There are programs on many reservations to teach the young. My grandsons
and granddaughter are learning the Dakota language in a Sisseton, S.D.,
school. I am amazed to hear my grandsons rattle off Dakota as easily as
English. They are young and at an age where learning a language isn't
difficult, but when these children go home, the adults - the generations
who were indoctrinated into the white way - don't speak the language. The
learning stops when school is out and after awhile, the children start to
forget. In order for a language to thrive, it must be used and spoken

Of course, we are in an English-speaking world. Most of us live our lives
in English.

But that isn't how it was 30 or 40 years ago, when Native languages were
common and less influenced by the media and society.

My father used to say that he dreamed in Sahnish. He spoke the Indian
language of the tribes in the Dakotas and was fluent in all four. His
English was poor. He said he had to listen to the English word and
translate it in his mind. There were too many foreigners, he called them,
whose language was influencing his family and the people. He was right.

Learning and understanding the language is important not only so that those
who wish to follow the Native way can participate, but also in order to
gain a clear understanding of the culture - our way of life.

One of the ways that this "language saving" is happening on some
reservations came from Arvol Looking Horse, the Keeper of the White Buffalo
Calf Peace Pipe, and other spiritual leaders and elders who said Native
ceremonies should be conducted in the Native language. If you don't know
the language, you can participate only on the periphery of the ceremony,
they said.

There was a lot of grumbling and naysaying around the reservations about
that decision, but there also are a lot more people who have begun to learn
the language. In order to participate in ceremonies, they said, it is
important - so learn it.

It is a tough and defining time for maintaining the languages of the
540-plus tribes in this nation. We are at a crossroads but the word is out.
Understanding the language is important for maintaining the ceremonies, and
the language has crucial ties to the culture of past generations. That
culture, in turn, is important to the future of Native people.

 Yellow Bird writes columns Tuesday and Saturday. Reach her by phone at
780-1228 or (800) 477-6572, extension 228, or by e-mail at
dyellowbird at

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