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Lakota Nation Journal


Cal Thunder Hawk


Revitalization of Lakota language paramount to moving ahead

OGLALA--The day before the anniversary of Crazy Horse’s death, Leonard Little Finger, Director of Lakota Studies, sat in his office at Loneman School and talked about the need for unity among Lakota language teachers. It is a need that the Oglala Sioux Tribe council adopted by resolution.

The Oglala Nation Education Consortium brought the resolution before the Council after they had officially endorsed the Lakota Language Consortium in March. Nine schools voted unanimously to support the project.

Little Finger said, “This started back in October 19, last year. It was at a meeting in Rapid City that all the Lakota language teachers that are employed at various locations gathered. A lot of frustrations were expressed.”

“This was a meeting that was conducted after the regular conference of the South Dakota Association of Bilingual Educators. It was an evening, after-hours, meeting following the formal setting of the regular conference. The group gathered and decided to talk a little bit about the status of the language. We had representatives from Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Rosebud and Pine Ridge. One after another we’d get up and we talked about some of the issues that were confronting us like lack of language material, lack of a proper curriculum, lack of recognition--many issues.”

“Underscoring the meeting was that everybody, on occasions in the past, had agreed to gather and talk about this as a problem but then nothing ever happened. Everybody would pack their bags and go home and continue on as they had been before,” Little Finger said.

“We do have some problems with the schools. What has happened is that not a single school anywhere has been able to produce a fluent speaker. The only fluent speakers that are being produced are those that are coming from Lakota language speaking homes. And only those are the ones that are few and far in between. But no school has a program that has produced those kinds of speakers,” Little Finger said.

“So, following that, myself, Brian Charging Cloud and Robert Two Crow -- we each represented different schools but individually we were members of ONEC--we approached ONEC and expressed our concerns to them. We told them that, as we looked around within our communities, there was really no one there to adequately replace the teachers that are in the school systems once they were unable to continue on in their jobs because of health or whatever other reason. And, because we’re at a point that we’re going to soon face the loss of our language, we needed to do something in an organized way. We also talked about the issue that the language itself is a language that has some definite values. Values such as when we say ‘Ounye’ or ‘Oiye’ then that means the way of life from the Lakota perspective,” said Little Finger.

“And those are some of the values that the language has,” said Little Finger. Little Finger continued, “But since it’s not being spoken then we’re losing that valuable perspective and it soon will be gone. We also told of how many children are being taught in schools but that, in many cases, the family themselves -- young parents, in that generation -- may not be speaking their language at all. It might just be the grandparents. So when we taught Lakota to children, what they were taught in the classroom could not be practiced or exercised at home because no one spoke the language in the household. So, our request was to have ONEC, as a consortium, sponsor a Lakota language revitalization program. So, this is how it originated,” Little Finger said.

“It was an effort that emerged out of those of us who had a responsibility to provide language learning opportunity. It came out of having the frustrations of being unable to establish an adequate program that would introduce fluency back into the home. That’s really what we were looking for. ONEC looked at it, discussed it and they said that ‘We will support you in any effort that you can find that can meet your needs,’” Little Finger said.

Little Finger continued, “So we looked at a lot of different programs. We looked at our reservation system. We looked at what the programs were capable of doing. We also looked at other organizations, other people. These people included the Jewish people. There were on the verge of losing their language. They used the teachings of their spirituality and approached learning the language from the spiritual side.”

“We also looked at the Hawaiian language revitalization effort. It provided a unified effort between the communities, between the schools -- all the way up from kindergarten through the university level -- and unifying efforts including language teacher training, curriculum development, integrating schools with their communities. Finally, we looked at the Maori people of New Zealand,” Little Finger said.

Little Finger continued, “The Maori won a large settlement in a claim against the government. Integrated into the settlement was money earmarked especially for the development of the language revitalization. So there were a number of projects were worldwide. They demonstrated that it was possible to revitalize language. So, from that point we looked at a couple of universities. One is in the Southwest. The other is in the Midwest. The one in the Southwest was primarily interested in the languages of the Southwest Tribes.”

“So, a plan developed out of that after a couple of months. This plan was to develop the LCC. In order to create an entity, the LLC would be using some of the efforts that had been done worldwide and had been tested, proven to be effective. This included all the schools that have all the Lakota language people in their systems. whether it was a state, county, parochial, BIA, grant or a 638 operated system. Ranging all the way from kindergarten to the higher levels of college,” Little Finger said.

“Also, the LLC would include the concept of Oyate as our cultural base. The Oyate as tiyospaye and the tiwahe, those being the traditional place in our culture where language first originated. So, as we continued to talk to UI, we talked first of all about what was important to us and that is to establish a database. We also needed to acknowledge that Lakota people speak the language differently. We use different words or perhaps speak in a different dialect that varies from wherever one tiyospaye originates. For example, up North, the word for grandfather is lala in their dialect. Down South, the Oglala and Sichangu say kaka but in both dialects, when the word is used to convey high regard and respect, the word is tunkashila,” Little Finger said.

Little Finger said, “So there was a need to consider, maybe, an established orthography, an established curriculum. These things would be primarily geared to meet the needs of the children. If we fail to revitalize our language, at least they will have something to turn to that would be recorded or which would be verbalized. Somewhere along the line in the future, when all of us who are here on Mother Earth are gone, then there will be something there for the children if this need to revitalize our language occurs again.”

“We thought at that time that ONEC, which consists of all the schools on the reservation would be the starting point. We felt that it was necessary to start this out in this small way. The smallest unit we could start with was one school that would participate. then we’d build from there and include other schools. but when we presented this to ONEC, all the schools that had membership expressed an interest in the objectives of this endeavor, so it became ONEC. but, also at the same time, we had people and teachers interested from other reservations. Cheyenne River Reservations, Standing Rock Reservation and, to a certain degree, some of the people from the Rosebud Reservation were interested. And collectively, this meant that there would be something across the board for the entire Lakota speaking locations to have access, which is still a good idea. But the danger is getting too big, starting too big. And not being able to adequately meet the needs of all the participating schools,” Little Finger said.

What is the problem that needs to be fixed?

Little Finger believes that “Part of our basis is that Wakan Tanka gave us a language so that we can talk with Wakan Tanka. The Lakota way of life is spiritual and it is holistic. Holistic meaning that all things Wakan Tanka created are related. Those are the understandings of the Lakota world that our ancestors had lived by. We see nothing with that because, as Vine Deloria says, ‘Native American knowledge is just as accurate, as comprehensive, as anyone else’s.’”

“For such a long period of time, maybe 125 to 200 years, every effort has been made to change our way of life, our language. The whole system, from the very onset, all the educational standards, were relegated and designed as an assimilation project for our Oyate. This assimilation project was to have us enter into mainstream society and become like everybody else. but, today, when we’ve been able to look at both worlds that are around us -- our Lakota world and the world that is around us -- things that are not always good exist in the world that surrounds the Lakota. The things that have been done to try and get us accepted into that world, many of those things were of a violent nature, such as Wounded Knee, where forced assimilation was at its most violent level.”

Why is Lakota language so critical for Lakota children?

Little Finger said, “Part of this that has to come back is the rebuilding of our spirituality and the rebuilding of our way of life. That way of life is not something that is not by government standards as to who is and who isn’t Indian but it’s an acknowledgment, an understanding, of the laws. The natural laws that Wakan Tanka gave us. The laws that are based on our conduct, how we conduct ourselves. That’s the value system. We say wicoahope. That’s the sum total of all the values that we have. In the past we did things in a consensus way.”

“Those are the kinds of things that we really need to get back to. Where we can really live by what one medicine man talked about one time. He talked about the words mitakuye oyasin,” Little Finger said.

Little Finger continued, “He said, ‘Today as I hear people pray, finish their prayers, they will say mitakuye oyasin. When I hear that, it seems as if they’re ending their prayer with an ‘amen.’”

Little Finger said, “He said, ‘My concern is that we’re using that too lightly because if someone says mitakuye oyasin, it means that we’re making a commitment that we understand that it means, that we are created by Wakan Tanka and that Wakan Tanka has created all things. We understand that they are making a declaration, that we are part of this process. My hope is that my people will be able to some day understand its meaning by living it, by practicing it. This understanding restores the life that was our way. The way that they tried to take away from us.’”

Little Finger continued, “So language is a key to that perspective. That’s what this effort is all about. Language has no ownership with schools. It has no ownership with any organization but it does have ownership by the People. Language is we, as a People, exercising our sovereignty. Our sovereignty is our language. If we have our sovereignty, we will always uphold the things that our ancestors fought so hard for.”

Why is unity so important to language revitalization? why is Lakota language standardization important?

Little Finger said, “This is based upon what exists now, in terms of language use. Language is not, by and large, spoken in the homes. Ours is an oral language. Many people say, ‘Well it belongs in the home so it should stay in the home.’”

Little Finger continued, “That’s exactly what’s happening. It’s not being spoken in the home so it’s not being continued. For those of us who grew up speaking the language, we never learned it through Lakota I and Lakhota II and Lakhota III and so on. We learned it because we heard it from our families as it was being spoken. Only when we became involved in teaching it did we actually learn how to write and to read it ... What we have now is children who must learn to read and write before they can speak the language. We’re reversing the impact that occurred to us where we decreased the use of the Lakota language and increase the use of the English language.”

“Now, when English is paramount, this process is reversed. So, what will come out of the LLC an orthography is still unknown. What will probably come out of it will be a simple way of being able to read it and write it. But, ultimately, being able to express those specific sounds associate with our language. So, that’s the exciting groundwork for the people that are going to come. At some point this ability to read and write the Lakota language will be the whole basis for the future development of textbooks, newspapers and things that are readable.”

Little Finger said, “But, I’m not one to say ‘This is the way it’s going to be.’ I’m not qualified to impose that on anyone. But I am qualified to say that I acknowledge the differences that exist. Whatever those differences are for today’s Lakota teacher, if they’re comfortable with what they’re using, our intent is not to say ‘Throw that out of the window’ and wind up doing something all together different. The intent is so that they will be able to say, ‘Okay, this is how it’s done at Rosebud, this how it’s done over there at Cheyenne River and the other places.’”

“We broaden each one’s own horizon and gradually an orthography will come out of this. That’s my expectation but we won’t see this in our generation. If we do our job good enough, then it’s those children that are coming up now who will make those decisions,” Little Finger said.

“Some of us may be uncomfortable with this. I say, ‘Acknowledge that.’ There have been too many years that have gone by where they threatened to take our language away from us. It’s going to be, perhaps, many more years before we can come back to that level of fluency that we had before contact with the Europeans. But, the main benefit of unity is the impact in the increase of fluency. Because no matter where they are or where they go they are going to have a gradual increase of fluency by age, by grade, of their fluency. If this can be consistent across the board then wherever they go they’ll have access to being able to continue in the growth and development of the language”

“That, is the benefit of standardization and it will give us enormous advantages,” Little Finger said.

© 2008 Cal Thunder Hawk