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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 26, 2003 - Issue 92


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Tribes Struggle to Preserve Language

by Peter Harriman Argus Leader
credits: photos by Peter Harriman

Tiny GraduatesLAKE ANDES - Thirteen tiny graduates in red and blue caps and gowns gather around a large white screen in the 4-H building here.

The 4- and 5-year-old students in the Yankton Sioux Tribe's language immersion class of 2003 watch a videotape of themselves, made several days earlier. On the tape, the kids eagerly shout out answers to questions.

"How do you say gold?"


"How do you say red?"


"How do you say spotted?"


Here is either the future of the tribe's language or a futile dream.

Graduation ProcessionSouth Dakota tribes have embarked on a quest to reverse the rapid decline of the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota dialects of their native language. Before World War II, these were the vernacular on most reservations, the languages tribal members learned at home before they learned English.

But a survey conducted by Oglala Lakota College in 1993-94, the latest data that's available, shows what has happened at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and, by extension, to all tribal languages in the state.

Among the survey findings:

  • 90 percent of people 70 and older still spoke Lakota.
  • 80 percent between ages 60-70 still spoke the language.
  • Overall, an estimated 40 percent of Oglalas could still speak it.
  • 1 percent of people younger than 18 could speak their native tongue.
  • The average age of speakers was 35.

The goal at Pine Ridge and elsewhere is to make tribal languages commonly spoken. Tribes hope to preserve language as vital instruments for conveying the nuances of Indians' concepts of themselves and their relation to the world. It's a goal that must be met before a critical mass of speakers ages and dies.

But there is no set path toward language salvation, and efforts in the state use widely different approaches that are often underfunded and controversial.

The Oglalas at Pine Ridge are being assisted by the Indiana University American Indian Studies Research Institute, which is acting as a linguistics technical consultant, says Will Meya, who runs IU's Lakota Language program.

A native language is vital to preserving a unique world view, he says.

"It is hard to appreciate, if you are monolingual, that there really is a way of thinking, articulating and conceiving of ideas that is inherent in another way of speaking," he says.

"Some linguists compare language to a biological species. Within the grammar and vocabulary is sort of a genetic code that has evolved for thousands of years and is unique."

The fundamental Lakota idea that everything is interrelated is conveyed in the syntax of the Lakota language. European thought assumes an individual stands separate from the world and makes value judgments about it. This is seen in basic English syntax: subject, verb, object, "Jane sees the dog."

In Lakota, the syntax is object, subject, verb, "The dog Jane sees." There is no subtle implication the dog exists only because Jane sees it.

"We have got to look at life on this planet as inherently more valuable if we have those ideas available to us," Meya says.

The first Lakota immersion program began in 1997 at Loneman School on Pine Ridge. Meya's assertion that language is integral to culture resonates with Leonard Little Finger, the school's Lakota studies director.

"One of the most important areas of language is the spiritual side," Little Finger says. "Our elders say our tongue was given to us by our creator so we can speak with our creator."

Tribal languages were under attack in South Dakota from the time tribes were conquered in the 1880s and forced to submit to government assimilation policies.

Isolation, though, served as an effective antidote. Reservations far removed from the dominant society were reservoirs of native speakers. Despite consistent pressures at boarding schools and elsewhere to turn Indians into imitation whites, native languages survived well on South Dakota's reservations until the past 50 years.

"Before 1954, the identity to be Lakota was very strong," Meya says.

That all began to change when Indians who entered the wider world to fight World War II began returning home.

"Lakotas resisted language change and remained true to their culture much longer than many other tribes," he says. "When so many of the young Lakota males went off to war, it changed so profoundly. They saw the rest of the world for the first time and also realized the vastness of what was up against them, the dominant society.

"The cash economy started on Pine Ridge. That's when so many things came back from the outside world."

'Battling English'
Little Finger, 65, is from Pine Ridge. Like many of his peers, he learned Lakota as a first language. He illustrates the profound difficulty in bridging the gap between aging fluent speakers and the children who proponents hope will carry on their tongue.

"In my life, I grew up where everyone spoke the language. It was just as natural as could be. I didn't have to read a book to learn my words. I heard it and spoke it," he says. "I look now, and those people are few and far between. We can still carry on a conversation, but I carry them on primarily with people my own age. It is rare I speak with youth. I try to say words in Lakota, and they look at me with saucer eyes."

Making native languages relevant to the 21st century is crucial if they are to survive as living languages, says Meya, the Indiana linguist.

"We're battling English," he says. "We're competing against things like satellite television and all the things the dominant English language has to offer. We're competing just for students' attention. Part of the strategy is to create as much material for them as possible to make it relevant."

Jerome Kills Small, who has taught Indian languages at the University of South Dakota for 13 years, does detect in them a necessary attribute of a living language, the ability to create new words. Like every language, they have bound morphemes, an arbitrary pairing of sound and meaning that is the building material of words.

"If you can put syllables together you can create and describe a new noun. If a first-language speaker heard it, they would know exactly what that word is," Kills Small says.

Perhaps the simplest example of a bound morpheme in English is the sound "s." Attached to the end of any noun, it signifies the plural.

Even as tribes race to create a new generation of speakers, their native languages need gatekeepers to ensure tribal language morphemes and existing words are used to make new words in the 21st century, rather than letting English creep into the lexicon, Meya says.

"That's what the French do all the time. Everything is brought into French. There are no Anglo words at all," he says.

Tribes use different strategies
There are two types of language-restoration programs on reservations. At Yankton and Pine Ridge, the goal of immersion classes is to conduct them almost totally in the native language. Cheyenne River's Good Child Program - Cinci Wakpa Waste - seeks to teach Lakota and English together in grades K-12.

Bilingual education was the favored method of Lakota language instruction, according to a survey conducted among Cheyenne River parents in 1999 by Marion Blue Arm.

"Parents always feel we are giving up English if we teach Lakota," she says.

That's not the case.

"If you truly have immersion to the third grade, there are all these studies that show English will come back anyway. They will learn that and pick it up like nothing," says Blue Arm. "But people don't believe that. They believe that if you are not teaching English intensely from the beginning, the students will be at a disadvantage."

Rosie Roach, a former elementary school principal, is the administrator of language programs in Cheyenne River schools. Immersion has run afoul of not only leery parents but recalcitrant teachers, she says.

"We do get a small amount of resistance from parents. We get a lot of resistance from teachers," she says of language immersion. "Most of the teachers in our systems are non-Indians. Research shows our Native American children can really progress if they have their language and culture. Yet when we look at that as teachers, we don't do anything with it. We continue to teach in the same way we've been teaching the past 50 years. That has to change."

Cheyenne River has put an innovative twist on bilingual instruction. It has started to pair fluent Lakota speakers in classrooms with certified teachers. The idea is to bring both language proficiency and teaching proficiency together. That level of professional support stands in stark contrast to Lavena Cook, who teaches the Yankton's language immersion classes at Lake Andes.

"I knew my language. But I don't know a thing about teaching. I did everything in my life but teach children," says Cook, 54. She was working as a postal clerk in Marty last year when officials with the tribal-language immersion program prevailed upon her to take over the class. "I said, 'I'll try. I'll do it for six months, and if I'm not doing a good job, you can let me go.' "

Time to act is limited
Whatever the state of language restoration, things are better than they were, says Roach at Cheyenne River.

While interest in restoring native language is strong now, the opportunity to do so is relatively short. Meya points to the aging native language speakers. "We only have 20 years, if that, to use the speakers of today as teachers to train a generation of speakers," he says.

Meya, Little Finger and Roach all say the federal government could play a major role in providing funding for language teachers and producing native language curricula. Meya talks about $5 million a year for 40 years for the Pine Ridge project alone.

Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota is a co-sponsor of the 2003 amendment to the 1990 Native American Languages Act. He also is the most prominent official Meya solicits for federal aid.

The amendment he is co-sponsoring encourages the development of language nests, organized language programs for children 7 years old and younger and their families. It offers schools a chance to qualify as language-survival schools to receive funding.

The catch is, there is virtually no funding in the current budget.

"We are trying to devise new, more effective ways to provide for Native American language survival. This is one step in that direction," Johnson says of the amendment. "There is not a lot of money to be had that is focused exclusively on Lakota language preservation."

Meya points out the irony that what federal money is available tends to go to the most threatened languages, rather than ones like Lakota, that have enough speakers to have a chance of survival.

Johnson agrees: "A language like Lakota, that still has a significant number of fluent speakers, has a better long-term chance at being preserved in a meaningful way and not just as an academic subject but as a language that is utilized in daily life."

But he adds that when it comes to fighting for funding, he must take into account what the tribes want and need.

"Their funding requests tend to focus more on basic human needs, school funding, nutrition, Indian Health Service, law enforcement, roads and water," he says. "I know language preservation is important. But that's not an area they have made central to their appropriations requests."

So there are people such as Cook, the nonteacher, with no help or experience, trying to save the Yankton's Dakota by cobbling together her version of immersion. The students probably heard more English than a linguist would like to see in an immersion program, they learned more vocabulary than sentence structure, and the class concluded with no exam, no formal assessment of success.

But Cook recounts a telling little triumph, an example of language truly restored. One day, she intervened as a pair of her tiny students were squabbling over a toy.

They were arguing in Dakota.

Lakota Language Revitalization
Native language instruction for children has changed in recent years to include computer-based pedagogical material. As a result, a variety of multimedia language programs have been developed as a way to teach vocabulary, sentence structure, and oral retention. These tools are becoming recognized as an important and accessible way for teaching languages. Such developments are particularly important in light of the very real threat of extinction faced by these language. In this regard, there is a concerted effort under way from both from the community and the academy to revitalize and preserve these languages. An example of this effort is the series of language programs developed between community members,teachers and myself in 1998 and 2000 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The project has highlighted the ability of multimedia programs to open new areas of opportunity for Native language transmission and preservation.

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