Culture & language (community)
andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Wed Apr 20 05:48:43 UTC 2005
Young American Indians strive to maintain traditional culture
EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. - When Emanuel Red Bear and his friends wanted to
learn the traditional songs of the Lakota Sioux, they turned to
76-year-old Burdell Blue Arm and his extensive knowledge of Lakota
"We were thinking about singing some songs, and Burdell said, 'Let's
sing some old songs, traditional songs,'" said Red Bear, who lives in
Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.
Along with Blue Arm and his nephews, Red Bear began a traditional drum
group called "Wakpa Waste," pronounced WALK-pah WASH-tay, Lakota for
"Good River." That is also how the tribe refers to its namesake, the
"We try to sing the older songs (so) that the people will hear," Red
But preserving those songs, and American Indian culture in general, is
becoming increasingly difficult as tribal elders pass away. For
example, Blue Arm lives in a nursing home in Mobridge, more than 80
miles from Eagle Butte. He is in the early stages of Alzheimer's
disease and is beginning to lose his memory.
"That's the way my mind is - I forget now and then," Blue Arm said.
As his memory fades, the tribe loses one of its most important
"Burdell is a living library of Lakota music," said his nephew, Steve
Emery, a member of Wakpa Waste and a lawyer for the Rosebud Sioux
For Red Bear, who teaches Lakota language and culture to students in
Eagle Butte, keeping younger Indians interested in the ways of their
people is a challenge. Many just don't care to learn the ways of their
ancestors because of the allure of contemporary American culture, he
"We have more influences of the modern society. Gangs, television,
alcohol and drugs - everything's right here," Red Bear said.
"We live in two worlds, the Lakota world and the non-Indian world."
The Cheyenne River tribe passed an ordinance in 1993 requiring that
Lakota language and culture be taught in reservation classrooms. But it
is a struggle to capture students' interest, Red Bear said.
"We have people, our own tribal members, who are ashamed to be
(Lakota), and they don't want to learn the language," he said. "It's
sad to see."
Another problem are the differences in dialects between tribes, Red
Bear said. The Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Standing Rock and Cheyenne River
tribes all have different ways of referring to things and there are
specific endings indicating the gender of the speaker. That means it's
nearly impossible to reach a consensus on what needs to be taught, he
"We're standing in one place spinning our wheels, arguing about who's
right and who's wrong, and in the meantime we're losing our language,"
Red Bear said.
But there is hope.
Red Bear grew up speaking Lakota at home, and said learning such
everyday phrases as "brush your teeth" and "go play" is crucial to
saving the language. In outlying areas of the reservation, away from
towns such as Eagle Butte, there are still families that speak Lakota
at home, he said. Encouraging them to keep that up will help preserve
the Lakota way, Red Bear said.
"We still have a chance if we get the ones that live in the outlying
districts," he said.
In addition, Red Bear and others are spearheading projects such as a
Lakota language immersion camp at the Cheyenne River reservation, which
will be held for the second time this summer. Sponsored by the tribe,
Si Tanka University and a bilingual education program, it involves
language classes and instruction in such cultural activities as
erecting tipis. The campers, mainly college students, are taught by
members of the Cheyenne River tribe.
Drum groups like Wakpa Waste also help by keeping people familiar with
the older songs and exposing new people to them, Red Bear said. During
the 2005 legislative session, Wakpa Waste took a drum to Pierre and
sang in the South Dakota Capitol rotunda before a crowd that included
lawmakers and Gov. Mike Rounds.
For Blue Arm, the efforts of people like Red Bear and his nephews to
learn - and preserve - the Lakota way are a beacon of hope.
"It means something that they can speak the language. Maybe God is
helping us," Blue Arm said.
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