Lakota on Path to Recapture Language

Francis M. Hult fmhult at
Thu Mar 16 05:18:39 UTC 2006

Wed Mar 15 11:16:40 2006 Pacific Time

      Lakota on Path to Recapture Language

       PINE RIDGE, S.D., March 15 (AScribe Newswire) -- The Lakota Sioux 
language, made famous through its portrayal in the 1990 film "Dances with 
Wolves," is now one of only a small handful of Native American languages with 
enough remaining speakers to survive into the next generation, announced a 
major language organization. Lakota is currently one of the last major Native 
American language hold-outs in what is a worldwide crisis of linguistic 

       To keep the Lakota language from disappearing completely, an ambitious 
revitalization campaign has been organized by a group of tribal leaders and 
linguists. The campaign is spearheaded by the nonprofit Lakota Language 
Consortium, which develops the Lakota-language teaching materials used in 23 
area schools and which trains language teachers. The organization's goal is to 
encourage the use of the language by a new generation of speakers. Children 
using the group's language materials become proficient in Lakota by the fifth 
year of use. The group plans to have a fully sequenced curriculum that 
students can follow from first grade through college. 

       The consortium's latest Level 2 textbook is currently being distributed 
to schools across Indian country. For Leonard Little Finger, the great-great-
grandson of Chief Big Foot and one of the group's co-founders, the textbooks 
symbolize an important milestone for the Lakota. Little Finger notes 
that, "the effects of government policies were profoundly destructive to our 
language and our ability to pass it on to our children. These materials are so 
important because they are the first ever designed to raise children to speak 
Lakota. Not since before our great-grandparents were confined to the 
reservations, have we been allowed to raise our children speaking the 
language. As Lakotas, we will not let our language die, and these books give 
me hope that my grandchildren, at least, will have the privilege to speak 
their language." 

       Tribal elders and traditional leaders have made it a priority to keep 
the language alive for future generations. 81-year-old Clarence Wolf Guts, the 
last surviving Lakota code talker from WWII, points out that, "our people need 
to know that Lakota had an important position and to learn to be proud to 
speak Lakota. It is good that the kids are now learning Lakota in the 
schools." Oglala Sioux Tribe Vice-President, Alex White Plume, shares this 
opinion and explains that through the group's efforts, ³we are finally making 
some progress in teaching the language to the children.² 

       The group recently received the nation's leading language 
revitalization award, the Ken Hale Prize, from the Society for the Study of 
the Indigenous Languages of the Americas. The consortium was distinguished for 
its outstanding community language work and deep commitment to the promotion 
and revitalization of Lakota. Still, the group's Linguistic Director, Jan 
Ullrich, points out that, "revitalizing a language is no easy task and much 
more needs to be done to educate the public about the state of endangered 
languages and the needs of indigenous peoples." Ullrich concedes that Native 
American language loss is an enormous though silent crisis. "The fact is, few 
people know about the seriousness of the language crisis - that there are 
perhaps only a dozen languages that have a chance of surviving in the United 
States out of the original five hundred. When a language disappears, we lose 
an important record of our human experience - our linguistic heritage. 
Languages encompass a people's unique and irreplaceable songs, prayers, 
stories, and ways of seeing the world. Ninety percent of these repositories of 
knowledge will pass into oblivion unless we do something about it." 

       The organization's goal is to expand its revitalization efforts beyond 
the classroom and to more actively bring the language back into use within the 
community. They aim to provide incentives for young people to speak the 
language, to develop Lakota-language television programming, and to expand the 
literature available in the language. They model their actions on the best 
practices of other successful language revival efforts from around the world. 
However, the group's Executive Director, Wilhelm Meya says that funding 
continues to be the primary obstacle to the return of the 
language, "government aid is almost nonexistent and there are very few grants 
available for endangered languages. Individual donations seem to be the only 
hope endangered languages like Lakota have." 

       Luckily, there are other people besides the Lakota themselves who want 
to see the language preserved. Meya explains that support for the group's 
effort has come from a number of less common sources such as German nonprofit 
organizations like the Tatanka Oyate Verein. "We have had to be creative to 
garner support for our efforts. It's very important that we succeed," Meya 
says. He also cites several other unique donors to the Lakota language, 
including the Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation and Sioux Tools. Meya 
notes that the sports franchise, in particular, "is committed to helping the 
Lakota language and is a very proud supporter of our cause." Meya explains 
that individual donors have also played a significant role in helping language 
rescue efforts. One such donor, Jim Brown of Bemidji, Minnesota, is ardent 
about the need to support Lakota. He emphasizes, "it is my duty to do whatever 
I can to help Native American cultures survive. I'm very pleased to be part of 
this effort to keep the Lakota language alive and available to all of us." 

       The remaining Lakota speakers are acutely aware of the high cost of the 
potential loss of their language. Elmer Bear Eagle, a resident of Wounded 
Knee, remembers with fondness when most people still spoke Lakota and laments 
the current state of the language. As an extra in "Dances with Wolves," he was 
very glad to be able to speak Lakota in the film but observes that, "if we 
can't save our language soon, all of our children will need to read the 
subtitles in the movie, just like everybody else, to understand what it being 
said in Lakota. Then, we will have truly lost our uniqueness as Lakota 

       More details on the Lakota Language Consortium are available at: 

       - - - - 

       CONTACT: Wilhelm K. Meya, Lakota Language Consortium, 812-340-3517, fax 
812-857-4482, meya at

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