"When I speak Lakota, I feel connected to all my relatives in
the previous generations. I feel connected to my land. There's nothing
to compare it to, the feeling of being Lakota in Lakota country,
speaking Lakota." TipiziwinYoung, Lakota language teacher,
Sitting Bull College, Fort Yates, North Dakota, from the film "Rising
revitalization classes have become part of the curriculum
in many Lakota Country schools. Here Tipiziwin Young teaches
Kyyanlyn Eagle Shield.
In November, PBS will air "Rising Voices," a new film about
the efforts to preserve the Lakota language. The film takes the
viewer from hope to despair, from apathy to excitement, and from
the past to the present. As tribes across the country face the challenges
of language restoration, many will identify with the struggles and
efforts highlighted by this film.
Apathy towards the language is apparent in the film. In one
scene, the stands are packed at Rapid City, South Dakota's Lakota
Nation Invitational basketball tournament, but just down the hall,
the audience chairs remain empty during the Lakota Language Challenge.
As elders wonder how to inspire the youth, JoAllyn Archambault,
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, director of American Indian Programs
at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, hopes the
Lakota language won't become an archaic artifact. "So many languages
around the world are dying. I truly hope the language survives.
But at 72, it's not going to be me that saves it, it's going to
be my grandchildren."
young student stands with elders and teachers as he prepares
to speak Lakota.
In South Dakota and North Dakota, where Lakota is the original
language, there are four Lakota immersion programs. Perhaps the
biggest surprise is that two of them are run by non-Natives. There
is a discussion in the film about whether it is appropriate for
non-Natives to be so deeply entrenched in teaching the Lakota language.
Young, a Standing Rock tribal member, said she believes, "If these
people can come in from other parts of the world and are able to
learn my language in a fluent, conversational manner, then I can,
too. Our language is learnable."
There are three short films within the film, and in one, a game
show announcer questions teens about their Native identity and their
relationship to their language. Their answers are typical of teens,
with some feeling language is extremely important and others feeling
language is not important at all. The voice of one elder states,
"When I see a Lakota kid who doesn't speak Lakota... I am hurt by
the youth not knowing the language."
The relationship between language and identity is woven throughout
the film and explored against a backdrop of tragic military history
and abuse in the boarding schools. When elders in the film recall
the intensity of their boarding school experiences, which caused
them to abandon their language, a powerful moment of recognition
occurs: it will take an equally intense movement to bring the language
back. It is no small deal and no small effort.
and Travis Condon review papers with Lakota words that have
been taped to the wall as a reminder to use the words they
But not all of the youth in the film ignore the efforts to reclaim
their language legacy. At the Red Cloud school, high school students
take the language class daily. Lakota language teacher Philomene
Lakota, who shares her boarding school experiences, says her students
give her hope when they come to class and voluntarily begin speaking
Lakota reminds her students that they are in the biggest battle
of their life. "They look at me and wonder, what battle? And that's
when I tell them you're going to fight this battle by speaking it,
and learning it, and using it and spreading it and teaching it.
Go home and teach your family. And if you do not do any of that,
then you will have lost the battle of the Lakota language."
The film ventures into the homes of students and teachers, the
young and the elderly, and gives a picture of the variety of efforts
made by those who are passionate about retaining what hopefully
will never be lost.
There are 170,000 Lakota people and only 6,000 Lakota speakers,
with an average age of close to 70 years old. The language is at
The film makes the connection between social ills on the reservations,
loss of culture, and language loss. To make the point, Lakota Summer
Institute teacher Ben Black Bear explains, "In English you say,
'A thunderstorm is coming and there's lightening with it.' If we
say that in Lakota we say, 'They have returned. They've opened their
eyes. They're thundering, they're making noise.' When we have a
thunderstorm coming without realizing we think, 'hey, there's thunder
Black Bear speaks one word of Lakota at a time into a microphone.
He and others are recording 22,000 words to be kept as a spoken
Kevin Locke, a board member of the Lakota Language Consortium,
agrees. "The Lakota language offers a different perspective, a different
angle on the world that we live in."
"Rising Voices" was produced by Wilhelm Meya, chairman and executive
director of Lakota Language Consortium. Meya told ICTMN that there
were two main objectives in making the film. "One was to do a film
that would inspire Native youth to take up the cause of learning
their language. We wanted to communicate to community members, so
they would have a model to become language activists themselves.
But we also wanted a film that would tell the stories of the language
revitalization movement for the general public. Most people in the
United States aren't aware that Native languages are endangered.
A film like this is a good way to educate them about this crisis.
It will also get them emotionally involved in it; to feel what these
communities are going through."
"It all depends on a youth movement," Locke told ICTMN. "The
only way it will move forward is with a youth movement." Locke said
it was young people who led the language movement in New Zealand,
which has been successful. "And it is happening with Lakota. There
is a large group of young people that are committed to obtaining
fluency in Lakota, and they are beginning to use it in the home
and it is happening in incremental levels."
Taken Alive and Sandra Black Bear read student submissions