Canku Ota Logo

Canku Ota

Canku Ota Logo

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 22, 2003 - Issue 83


pictograph divider


Educator Works to Preserve Lakota Language and, in Essence, a Culture

by Jon Walker Argus Leader
credits:Wilmer Mesteth stands in an arbor where he holds night dances at his home west of Pine Ridge. Mesteth is an arts, language and culture instructor at Oglala Lakota College and a Lakota spiritual leader.

Wilmer Mesteth stands in an arbor where he holds night dances at his home west of Pine Ridge. Mesteth is an arts, language and culture instructor at Oglala Lakota College and a Lakota spiritual leader.MANDERSON, SD - Wilmer Mesteth carries a treasure he'd like to share with as many people as possible on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The treasure is the Lakota language, a soft, smooth tongue that unlocks the heart and history of Mesteth's people, and in his view keeps alive the hope of their enduring identity.

"The language is the basis of our culture," he says from his classroom at the Oglala Lakota College in Manderson. "If we don't have a language, we don't have a culture. It's very important the language survives because our whole culture depends on it."

Unfortunately, the language is in sharp decline, the victim of neglect in a generational paradox growing more acute in the 30 years since the occupation of Wounded Knee.

For all the pros and cons of the American Indian Movement's standoff against federal authorities in 1973, the protesters did stand up to authority in a way that provided a cultural spark that asserted tribal people's right to speak Lakota freely. Young adults rejoiced at the possibilities, some of them with fresh memories of being punished for speaking the language on school playgrounds in the 1950s and '60s. Indians born since then, however, haven't picked up the torch and run.

"On a lot of reservations, the language is nearly nonexistent," says Belva Hollow Horn Emery, who grew up in Wounded Knee and now lives in White River. "That's what is keeping the culture alive. It makes us Indian. Without the language, pardon my saying, we're just brown-skinned white people."

Elaine Yellow Horse, an 18-year-old senior at Red Cloud High School in Pine Ridge, illustrates the gap. "I wish I did," she says when asked whether she speaks Lakota. "My mom does and that's one of her regrets, that she didn't teach it to her kids."

South Dakota's overall population is aging with the exodus of the young. But Pine Ridge sees the opposite with a birth rate twice as high as the rest of the state.

"I'm 46 and my generation is probably the last generation to speak Lakota," Mesteth says. "Most of the people on the reservation are 25 and below. Almost none of them speak it. Maybe 1 percent is my estimation."

He sees the culprit as the acculturation that Wounded Knee challenged. "Most kids now spend 70 percent of their time in school and when they get home most of them watch television," he says. "Everything's English."

That the language hasn't flourished since Wounded Knee is doubly disappointing for Mesteth, who carries his own painful memory from the '73 occupation. He was 16 when the standoff began, an AIM supporter who was expelled from high school in turbulent times as youthful demonstrations turned physical. His grandfather was Pedro Bissonette, an organizer of the occupation.

Mesteth today, living on Bissonette's land in Cheyenne Creek, salutes the occupation effort of 30 years ago.

"It showed the world we weren't going to waltz into mainstream society and everything wasn't all right," Mesteth says. "When AIM came here, they showed our people we were headed in the wrong direction. Our traditions were important, and our religious ways were important, and our treaties are legal and binding. AIM brought those issues to the attention of our people."

Supporters of Lakota are looking at different ways to bring the language back. One approach would be immersion courses, which follows a principle that has students adhere entirely to the language at hand rather than falling back onto English for definitions and explanations.

The trappings of the computer age are providing an assist as instruction goes electronic. Hollow Horn Emery, 45, is teaching the language to her 2- and 6-year-old daughters and making a compact disc of children's rhymes sung in Lakota. "We'd like to help preserve the language in that sense," she says.

From his classroom at Oglala Lakota College, Mesteth leads a one-hour seminar on Lakota after teaching a three-hour session on native quillwork. It's a modest undertaking on a recent Thursday afternoon, with three adults joining him at the end of a school day.

As with any language, Lakota locks inside it a structure of thinking unique to the people who speak it. While many European languages retain gender-specific terms such as "host" and "hostess," Lakota extends the gender distinction to the speaker as well. In essence, men talk one way and women another.

Wearing shaded glasses and parting his shiny black hair both left and right in a way that accents his bushy gray sideburns, Mesteth illustrates the distinctions of Lakota with a deep, resonant voice.

For "a sunny day" in English, a Lakota man would say "Ampetu Omaste yelo." A woman would say "Ampetu Omaste ye."

A translation of "what time is it?" takes the distinctions a step further.

A man would say "Maza skan skan Tona hwo?" A woman would say "Maza skan skan Tona he?"

The "skan skan" repetition comes from the sense of motion, as in two hands of a watch moving around a dial. The literal word-by-word in English would be "moving metal time how many?"

If moving between Lakota and English is clumsy with common phrases, it approaches impossible in some communication. Just as Western European languages regard time, life, death and friendship as concepts with meanings that exceed their literal definition, so too the Lakota have embedded in their tongue ideas on religion, kinship and nature that defy translation.

If the language goes, "we lose all that valuable information," Mesteth says. "Ceremonies, songs and prayers are all conducted in Lakota. Our worldview is centered in the language."

Manderson, SD Map

Maps by Travel

pictograph divider

Home PageFront PageArchivesOur AwardsAbout Us

Kid's PageColoring BookCool LinksGuest BookEmail Us


pictograph divider

  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

Canku Ota Logo   Canku Ota Logo

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Paul C. Barry.

All Rights Reserved.

Site Meter
Thank You

Valid HTML 4.01!