2017-01-11 / Voices of the People

Retaining our language means speaking it at home and in communities all of the time not just in school


Native population numbers declined radically the day Columbus arrived in this hemisphere of the globe but no one’s talking about it. European diseases, traveling faster than the settlers, decimated native populations. Modern historians place the survival rate at about ten percent. Today most of 2.5 million natives reside in major cities while the rest remain on their ancestral homelands (“Indian” reservations).

An old Lakota word, wicotakunisni (eradication of people), defines the destruction of native people including the diseases to which they had no immunity. War was waged on them which destroyed their lifestyles, belief systems, sovereignty or self-governance, food sources, the family unit, histories, traditions, and language. Scholars estimate that about 200 languages survived.

In the mid-1880s, at the behest of the newcomer’s greed for gold, their new government became combative toward the surviving Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires). Eventually, a peace treaty (one of many) written by United States representatives, was ratified in 1868. Congress, realizing it could not completely eradicate the remaining “savages,” endeavored to turn them into their own likeness.

Thus the treaty included the “civilization” of “Indians” by means of an “English education.” This legalized the forced removal of native children from their parents and isolated them in their xenophobic boarding schools (1886-1890) where they carried out their intense integration policy.

At the same time, according to the treaty, their parents were allocated necessities to become farmers and ranchers. They were confined to their own homelands and were required to ask for permission to leave. After living thousands of years with their itinerant, foodgathering, lifestyle successfully, the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) were expected to be like the white man in a mere two hundred years.

Meanwhile, the children were shorn of their hair and their languages were forcibly prohibited with severe and often brutal punishment. In effect, usage of their beloved Dakota/Lakota/Nakota language began to decline as more and more natives lost their desire or ability to speak it. The philosophical attributes that comprised their time-honored culture are also facing total obliteration today.

It is strange that in the midst of this destruction, some of the newcomers began to record our languages on paper. A 1723 text written by Augustin de Quintana referenced some language linguistics regarding “Indians” of Mexico. Since that time, numerous dictionaries, grammar, and vocabulary books, have been written.

The first vocabulary on “Sioux” and “Chippewa” languages was written in 1823. I counted 15 books (grammar, vocabulary, and dictionaries) written by both non-Lakota and Lakota authors. The latest rave is the orthography developed by the Lakota Language Consortium (LLC). As Lakota educators, we must realize that despite the great promise shown by each of these works, our language is still dying.

My parochial boarding school experience (1955-1965) was no different from the earlier government schools since it obliterated my culture in my mind. My first language was the only cultural element I retained. Resulting from the punitive school environment, I dropped out by the tenth grade and returned home with a marginal knowledge of Lakota customs, spiritual ways, and history.

The most devastating was the fact that I didn’t even know who my relatives were. I had to spend my adult life relearning the attributes of a Lakota person. I became involved in “teaching” language in our local elementary school (Loneman) in 1977. We used every educational innovation available but failed to produce speakers. Eventually, I realized that the abundance of written texts were useless.

I understood that every book that was ever written, every technological innovation, and every teaching method, appeared as if it was the one to save our language. Why are we now struggling to maintain our language? I can only pray that every modern Lakota language teacher in every educational institution using these linear or western methods to transmit Lakota language comes to this realization. Even the new “tribal” government got involved by passing several resolutions supporting Lakota language. A 1990 resolution declared the “Oglala Lakota language as the official language of the Pine Ridge Reservation.” Another resolution (No. 95-26) proclaimed the “second Wednesday in February annually as Lakota Language Day on the Pine Ridge Reservation.”

Resolution No. 02-133XB supported “the goals, strategies, and measures of the LLC (University of Indiana), to reverse the problem of Lakota language loss and to return the language to its former levels of use, both spoken and written…” The resolution was rescinded ten years later on May 29, 2012.

All these government and scholarly efforts are sadly off the mark. Lakota, as is Dakota and Nakota, is the exclusively oral language of the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires). It does not belong in the linear thought and philosophy of the newcomers. It is strictly interactive and any effort today should involve descendants who still speak it for they still hold remnants of our relational worldview.

For example, during my early language teaching experience, I saw an occasional speaker. It was obvious that such students learned at home within an effective language transmission process. We ignored it and continued persistently to transmit our language using western methodology. In retrospect, I see that we failed miserably.

Every Lakota language speaker today learned at home. We did not learn from a book or a computer or by completing college-level language classes. We learned by listening to and interacting with our parents and other relatives at home. Today, this is called immersion. Oddly though, this method continues to be ignored by modern educators.

Many learned to read and write it later in their lives. However, Lakota remains an oral language. It was never ever written throughout its existence. It was only when the Europeans arrived on the North America continent that they began smearing their biased linear worldview over our language, history, culture, and spirituality effectively obliterating them from the minds of native people.

We can no longer overlook the fact that our language is dying as an interactive oral language. In simpler terms, the constructs of the European linear worldview are continually destroying what little we have left of our language and culture. Sadly, we are promoting it by blindly using western pedagogy.

However, all is not lost. We can still revive our language by acknowledging and using immersion, the oldest language transmission/acquisition method in the world. Its costs can be very minimal. Our modern educators must learn to de-colonize and only then will they comprehend what I am conveying here. Until that happens, we must speak it in our homes and in our communities, not occasionally, but all the time.

(Ivan F. Star Comes Out, POB 147, Oglala, SD 57764; 605-867-2448 mato_

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