Sacred Language

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Wed May 18 18:55:14 UTC 2005

Lakota: a language with its own spiritual meanings
By KAREN HERZOG, Bismarck Tribune

Albert White Hat Sr. knows that at a certain age, young people like to
carve their initials in things.

But, he said, "my mother said, when you leave your name in public
places, it becomes 'hunwin,'" meaning the smell of something rotten.

So, through that Lakota word, a value was taught -- that it is
important not to become egotistical, vain or selfish.

For 25 years, Albert White Hat Sr., scholar, teacher and spiritual
leader, has taught the Lakota language.

An enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota, White
Hat directs the Lakota language program at Sinte Gleska University at
Mission, S.D. In 1982, he chaired the Committee for the Preservation of
the Lakota Language and is the author of "Writing and Reading the
Lakota Language" (1999, University of Utah Press).

In April, he talked to students and staff at United Tribes Technical
College in Bismarck about the connections between American Indian
languages and education.

Brian Palecek, English instructor at UTTC, introduced White Hat as a
remarkable scholar and teacher whose work Palecek cites in his teaching
of American Indian literature.

Language is about more than words. It is the carrier of a culture, the
vehicle which conveys history, spirituality, identity and values from
one generation to the next.

"Language is a living being. We (use it to) communicate with other
nations, the coyote nation, the eagle and bear," White Hat said.

White Hat, who spoke only Lakota until he started school in the early
1950s, spoke Lakota "day in, day out," at Spring Creek on the Rosebud

"I will always remember those days as my foundation," he said.

During the nights, the children would select a storyteller. There were
about five storytellers in the community, he said; the children's
favorite told ghost stories.

"We would chop wood and haul water, roll a Bull Durham, light it and
offer it to the storyteller," he said.

Stories, like those they heard there -- of warfare, fear, tragedy,
medicine -- "this is how we learn who we are."

Over and over, they listened to the story of Wounded Knee; "They told
us, always pray this will never happen to anybody."

At 16, White Hat found it a shock when he went to St. Francis boarding

"Other (Indian) kids ridiculed us for being Indian, teased us for
speaking Lakota. They had been at school since age five, and had been
conditioned," he said.

That education's goal was labor, obedience and dependency to authority,
he said. There was no vocabulary to describe a sunset, no skills to
play, "just live day to day reacting" to others and to authority, White
Hat said.

Languages were evenly divided between two subcultures, Catholic and
Episcopal, who had a deathly fear of Lakota spirituality, he said.

In 1841, missionaries developed an alphabet system for Indian
languages. They also interpreted Lakota words in terms of Christian
religious concepts, White Hat said.

"Wakan," which Christians translated to mean "sacred, holy, mystery,"
is really entirely different, White Hat said. "Kan" is life or energy,
with "wa" referring to the being with that "kan."

So, he said, "every one of you is 'wakan.' We all have the ability to
give, or to take life, to build or to destroy."

White Hat said other Christian concepts have burrowed into Lakota words.

"We don't have religion," he said. "We have spirituality."

That spirituality is revealed through the practice of certain virtues
-- bravery, generosity, fortitude and wisdom, he said.

The spirituality also is revealed in the phrase "mitakuye dysasin" --
"our creator became us."

What this means, he said, is:

"I'm related to all creation.

"I talk to a tree as a relative.

"I talk to the wind as a relative. The sun, the moon.

"We don't worship or bow or kneel.

"I dance with that tree as a relative.

"I work with the tree as a relative.

"When we have a need, we face west, call the attention of all relatives
to the west, (then to the) east, north, south, and express my need.

"Prayers float on puffs of tobacco smoke. Others pick them up.

"Our needs are met by creation."

When gathering plants with healing qualities, offerings are left in
exchange, White Hat said.

"We talk to plants," he said, noting, "thank you for your sacrifice.
Here are some offerings to your nation.

"There is always an exchange. Nothing is free."

By the 1950s and '60s, 100 percent of reservations were affected by
alcoholism, White Hat said.

And so Lakota words picked up the extra burden of describing alcohol,
drugs, sex and violence. Traditional words came to children to mean
things like "hangover" and "broke."

White Hat called the phrase "'Indian time' the poorest excuse we have
for being late. A real derogatory statement to ourselves."

Instead, say "nake nula waun" -- "I am always prepared."

"If we had been on Indian time," he said as an aside, to laughter, "the
Crows would have taken all our horses."

(Reach Karen Herzog at 250-8267 or krherzog at

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