uncle, a prominent medicine man, died about 14 years ago. When
he died, he took his knowledge of an important Sahnish or Arikara
ceremony with him. He told several young men, who were trainees,
that for him to teach them this ceremony, they needed to know
the Sahnish language. They knew only "words" and not
the speaking language.
medicine man's refusal to teach his ceremony to these young men
because they weren't fluent in the language resulted in his way
of the ceremony being lost.
of my aunts, who is Catholic but also believes in the Native way
of life, said that the ceremonies shouldn't be limited to the Native
language. Certainly, God wouldn't understand only one language,
has a good point that is difficult to counter.When the issue of
whether the Creator could understand all languages was asked of
my uncle, he said, yes, their God, our Creator, the Supreme Being
is powerful. It is we who might have difficulty communicating with
the Spirit because different languages differ in impact and meaning.
for example, a joke told in Sahnish and then retold in English.
In the Sahnish language it is funny, but when translated it loses
its punch - the translated words just don't provide the same meaning.
when we talk to the Creator in a language different than how we
were taught, the meaning may change, he said. The Creator does understand
all languages, but the ceremonies were given to us in Sahnish and
are best practiced that way, he told me.
communication dilemma is reaching a critical point on many reservations.
In fact, on some reservations, the language has all but disappeared.
are programs on many reservations to teach the young. My grandsons
and granddaughter are learning the Dakota language in a Sisseton,
S.D., school. I am amazed to hear my grandsons rattle off Dakota
as easily as English. They are young and at an age where learning
a language isn't difficult, but when these children go home, the
adults - the generations who were indoctrinated into the white way
- don't speak the language. The learning stops when school is out
and after awhile, the children start to forget. In order for a language
to thrive, it must be used and spoken regularly.
course, we are in an English-speaking world. Most of us live our
lives in English.
that isn't how it was 30 or 40 years ago, when Native languages
were common and less influenced by the media and society.
father used to say that he dreamed in Sahnish. He spoke the Indian
language of the tribes in the Dakotas and was fluent in all four.
His English was poor. He said he had to listen to the English word
and translate it in his mind. There were too many foreigners, he
called them, whose language was influencing his family and the people.
He was right.
and understanding the language is important not only so that those
who wish to follow the Native way can participate, but also in order
to gain a clear understanding of the culture - our way of life.
of the ways that this "language saving" is happening on
some reservations came from Arvol Looking Horse, the Keeper of the
White Buffalo Calf Peace Pipe, and other spiritual leaders and elders
who said Native ceremonies should be conducted in the Native language.
If you don't know the language, you can participate only on the
periphery of the ceremony, they said.
was a lot of grumbling and naysaying around the reservations about
that decision, but there also are a lot more people who have begun
to learn the language. In order to participate in ceremonies, they
said, it is important - so learn it.
is a tough and defining time for maintaining the languages of the
540-plus tribes in this nation. We are at a crossroads but the word
is out. Understanding the language is important for maintaining
the ceremonies, and the language has crucial ties to the culture
of past generations. That culture, in turn, is important to the
future of Native people.