Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 21)

Outsiders appropriating the Lakota language



The last grammar for Dakota was first published in 1893.  The Dakota Grammar (with texts and ethnography by Stephen R. Riggs) is still published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. A Jesuit, Eugene Buechel, published in 1939 “A Grammar of Lakota: The Language of the Teton Sioux Indians” through the Rosebud Educational Society.

When I returned for a language conference in Rapid City in late October, I received word that a new Grammar will be published soon.  It worried me because I teach the language. It made me wonder how we think we can improve on past grammars. I mean those written when the Lakota language was used every day and we didn’t need others to tell us the “rules” of our language.

This new grammar from what I can surmise is being written by outsiders, again. It is being written with the advice by “elders” who know the language. My question is what about dialects?

At the language conference, my session was about a language institute that is being proposed and supported by a state university within the territory of the Lakota people. History tells us that west of the Missouri river, the hunting area is Lakota. That is important information: The dialect was Lakota. The other stronger dialect was spoken mainly in Dakota country east of the Missouri (see 1862 Dakota War).

In presenting a proposal to a well-known state university (located in Brookings), I looked at the only other language institute currently operating in the state.  I needed to talk about what exists currently in the eastern part of the state of South Dakota so I did some research and this is what I found out.

The language institute that is currently in operation in the state of South Dakota has a mailing address of Bloomington, Ind. In light of the GEAR UP scandal we Lakota need to be wary of nonprofits located in remote areas far from the places that are supposed to serve the people.  The other thing I looked at was the board serving the nonprofit that just received a grant (along with a tribal government) to help with the language institute.  This is important as well, from the GEAR UP scandal we know that certain individuals appear on boards and what that really means.

So, the board members of this nonprofit based in Bloomington, Indiana has the two founders and other board members who are listed as “elders” who speak the language.  When I looked closely at who was listed, these individuals speak dialects other than the Lakota dialect we speak on the largest “Sioux” reservation in the state of South Dakota, ours: Pine Ridge. That makes a huge difference; ask a Dakota speaker what word is used for “grandmother” and you will immediately see what this means.

We, as Lakota speakers need to know those things and to remind outsiders coming in who seemingly are intent on appropriating the last thing we have (remember what happened to the Lakota Sun Dance in the last decades of the last century?) Appropriation is real and it is still happening at Pine Ridge, this time, it is the language that is being taken from us to be put into large language databases, out in places like Bloomington, Ind. The real question is:  Why?

The problem with outsiders is they gloss over things like dialects, even the difference between a man and woman speaker (the humor in recalling Kevin Costner learning the wrong gender ending for the film he directed). When I looked at the board of the nonprofit working diligently on the new grammar, the language institute currently operating in the state of South Dakota, a glaring omission is the lack of a woman on the board. Do outsiders really believe that our language is spoken only by men?

This type of ignorance is what worries me as we look to outsiders to help us establish language institutes and write grammars for us.  If you visit the website of the most active nonprofit (operating from the state of Indiana) you can see these glaring omissions.  You can see who the Executive Officers are and who really controls what is happening with the funding the nonprofit receives, in terms of sales from Lakota language material, etc.  (This has to worry us Lakota after the GEAR UP scandal).

My presentation regarding the proposed institute includes a question on how the staff will be selected: What type of specialist’s are needed and how many?  When I looked at the current staff listed in the language institute that currently operates through a tribal college in the area that serves Dakota/Lakota language teachers, I was most surprised by the teachers. As well as the “Creative and Support Staff” listed for a nonprofit that receives most of its income in the name of tribal peoples, that in a state that has a very high unemployment rate for tribal peoples, not one of the staff is a tribal person; as well the lack of representation in the classroom for the language institute.  In the website for this nonprofit there is a staff of seven and you will not find one native person.

When, as Lakota people do we start the “decolonizing” process:  when are our own experts that know our own dialects, able to convince our own tribes on the importance of using our own speakers (many of them offering free advice) to save our language?  The issue seems to be who owns the language? But the real question in light of what has happened with GEAR UP is who is receiving funding in the name of those that speak the Lakota dialect?
(Delphine Red Shirt can be reached at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.