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Meadowlarks still speak Lakota, humans don’t anymore

                 Ivan Starr

According to Lakota oral tradition, the tasiyagnunpa (meadowlark) speaks Lakota. The story tells how we became associated with the star nation. One evening two young Lakota women, sitting by a creek, wished they could marry the brightest stars in the sky. Falling asleep, they awoke in a beautiful land and soon learned they were married to star men, as they had wished and were content.

However, they were warned not to dig up the abundant tinpsila (turnip). One of them, with child and craving tinpsila, dug one up. As she ate, she saw the earth below through the hole in the ground, and her tiospaye (extended family) camped by a river. Becoming homesick, she dug up more turnips, braided them, and let herself down through the hole and fell to her death. Her unborn son survived and was raised by a meadowlark who taught him Lakota and named him Wicahpi Hinhpaye (Falling Star).

On any spring or summer day, listening carefully to the meadowlark, a speaker can hear Lakota phrases. Today, our youth are learning the language through dictionaries, notes, and grammar rules. Are we moving toward a written- and read-only language? Imagine a future where people on longer speak the language but pass written Lakota messages to each other.

In the late 70s through the 80s, Title VII funding, under the Bilingual Education Act (1965), allowed us to “teach” Lakota language in our local government elementary school. The lack of cultural orientation among the certified teaching staff and administration effectively marginalized our language program. Basically, we taught our students Lakota words to animals, shapes, and numbers, and they learned but could not carry a conversation.

Looking back at that time, I “see” that we reinforced the English language and Euro-American culture. In other words, when we sing “Jingle Bells” in Lakota, we were fortifying the colonist’s assimilation process they began in 1860 (some say it began in 1492).

In a realistic sense, we perpetrated cultural appropriation on ourselves. We taught our youth to speak English using the Lakota language. Shouldn’t we be heeding the advice of Tatanka Iyutaka (Sitting Bull) by keeping the good and discarding the bad? It is time to take a serious look at our language transmission efforts.

Can we admit that we are almost wholly absorbed into the new world order? We have certainly been subjugated as we are struggling to survive on a tiny remnant of a once vast Lakota territory established by treaty with the United States. Claiming cultural distinction is questionable as a tiny handful speak Lakota. Our culture is now distorted, and we proudly call ourselves “Indian” and “Sioux.”

We have entered the 21st century as culturally challenged people. Young people are using other cultural concepts to define Lakota culture. For instance, Turtle Island and Father Sky instead of Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) and Inyan (Stone). The first two originate from an east coast indigenous creation story and the latter originates from our own Otokaheya Kagapi Wicowoyake (First Creation Story).

This confusion is a serious hindrance to any effort to re-learn language and culture, In other words, we have been “teaching” Lakota language through the European worldview. A worldview is a collection of values, stories, and expectations, about the world around us, which infiltrate our every thought and action. Worldview is expressed in ethics, religion, philosophy, scientific beliefs and so on. (Sire, 2004).

A harsh reality is that when a Lakota speaker leaves this earth, they take their lingual and cultural knowledge with them. I recall many elders who spoke with urgency and then despair about this steady decline of language usage and culture. Then there are those who adamantly argue that our language will never die, even as coherent communicate is declining before our eyes.

The ongoing decline in Lakota language usage is not natural. Our language was targeted for destruction. It is deeply rooted in the dominant society’s supremacy doctrine. Being a Lakota language speaker became a bad thing. As a result, some parents refused to transmit the language to their children wanting them to be successful in the new dominant society. As a result, we have lost proficiency with our language… and culture.

Admittedly, I am not as proficient as my parents were and even less than my grandparents. My children and grandchildren (the future) don’t speak it. Today we have a lot less Lakota language speakers, period. In fact, the steadily diminishing elders are the only speakers now.

Are we destined to completely lose our language along with our ancestral world view and cultural knowledge? What will happen if our oral language does become extinct? I do not support the idea that our language is going to die. What I’m trying to do is to raise awareness of that possibility.

I have seen the dispiriting bicker over how a Lakota word is spelled while our English-only youth are at-risk of never being able to speak Lakota. All is not lost though, our language is being transmitted to our youngest and tiniest (preschoolers), our future, via the immersion process. Also, segments of today’s youth are being slowly reintroduced to Lakota thought and philosophy via cultural teachings.

I am making an appeal to all working in the language transmission effort to (please) do not overlook the fact that all speakers today attained proficiency in an environment where language was prominent and both aural and oral processes were used, the two most basic language transmission skills, listening and speaking.

I present a couple of responses from my previous articles about Lakota language and culture. It is essential for us to rethink our situation and discuss it openly with the intention of successfully retrieving and reestablishing our language and culture. Our future, our children, are depending on us.

“Hokahe! Wicoiye nitwawa ki wowasake lo. [Your words are powerful] Thank you Ivan… this new generation of Lakota language teachers are not speakers and are making Lakota second language of English. Some of us have tried to provide more accurate interpretations but instead we have been marginalized. The young ‘Lakota teachers’ say fluent speakers have ‘historical issues,’ and therefore are not reliable sources of the Lakota language,” Emmet Martin, Northern State University, (Jan. 2016).

“The schools are where the children get lost… because English is spoken and taught and Lakota language is marginalized. It ought to be reversed, Lakota language first… English second. And yes I agree, it’s your Lakota language speakers who are the natural speakers who can transmit the language and you don’t need state standards or federal requirements… in order for them to achieve success… the “standard” ought to just be, transmitting the language successfully to produce fluent speakers,” Ulma J. Black Crow-Wilkinson (Feb, 2016).

Creating an immersion environment will allow your children to learn, not with books and grammar rules, but in a natural manner. Hopefully we, as adults, can come together and begin working together. Remember, Meadowlark still speaks Lakota, humans don’t anymore.

(When we were children at Kyle during WWII we used to listen to the meadowlarks and they would be singing “Baldheaded Hitler, Hitler.” True story.)


(Ivan F. Star Comes Out can be reached at  PO BOX 147, Oglala, SD 57764; 605-867-2448;



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