Canku Ota Logo

Canku Ota

Canku Ota Logo

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 7, 2004 - Issue 106


pictograph divider


Saving Lakota

by Jomay Steen, Journal Staff Writer

Shawl DancersOGLALA --­ About a quarter century ago, in the remote southwest corner of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the students of Loneman School spoke the language of their chiefs, medicine men and ancestors.

On the reservation, the students and their families spoke Lakota almost exclusively in their homes, communities and at Oglala Sioux Tribal Council meetings.

That has changed.

Today, youth no longer learn their native language at the same rate that the language is lost through the deaths of fluent-speaking elders.

Wayne H. Evans, a professor in the school of education at University of South Dakota, says the language is in danger of becoming extinct.

"Nationally, it's critically endangered," Evans, who is Lakota, said.

Stephanie Charging Eagle, graduate department director at Oglala Lakota College, agrees.

"The Lakota language status is critical to a point of being lost," she said.

Within the hallways of Loneman School at Oglala, students speak, think and learn almost entirely in English, according to officials. Although the Lakota language has been ingrained into the school's curriculum and bilingual programs, it no longer is learned at a rate that can replace the shrinking circle of fluent-speaking residents.

Leonard Little Finger, cultural resource educator at Loneman School, has watched the transformation.

"Twenty-six years ago, 90 percent of the student body were fluent speakers," he said. "Today, those statistics have flip-flopped."

Deborah Bordeaux, principal at Loneman School, agreed, saying, "The (Lakota) language is going away from us."

Bordeaux works hard to achieve federal and educational standards at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school. But keeping and maintaining the Lakota language isn't one of those government standards. "We, as a people, need to
validate that. We need to value the language to save it," she said.

Valuing a language is key to saving it.
Half of about 6,000 languages currently spoken worldwide are endangered to some degree or dying out, according to a 2002 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

In the United States, fewer than 150 American Indian languages remain of hundreds that once existed, according to UNESCO.

And every single one is in some jeopardy, as are hundreds of other native languages in Canada, Mexico and Central and South America, the UNESCO report said.

An example: Earlier this winter, Florence Curl Jones, an Indian healer and spiritual leader of the Winnemem band of Wintu Indians in Shasta County, Calif., died at age 95. Jones, whose life was depicted in the 2001 documentary "In the Light of Reverence," was also one of the last 10 fluent speakers of her tribe's dying language.

Still time to save it
Although the Lakota language is not at that critical level yet, it is a concern for Lakota people who want to preserve the language to maintain their culture and spiritual integrity.

UNESCO estimates that 6,000 members of South Dakota's American Indian tribes are fluent speakers of Lakota.

What has brought the Lakota language to its current status is the United States embracing one universal language ­ English ­ in education, business, citizenry and government, Little Finger said.

At a recent Oglala Sioux Tribal Council meeting, council members debated agenda items, talked about financial reforms and agreed to sell its tribal farm and ranch ­ all while conversing entirely in English.

"Only about half of the council speaks Lakota," Lyman Red Cloud Sr. said.

Red Cloud, a council official, is bilingual. Lakota was his first language, which he learned from his parents and practiced in his home and community. Red Cloud, who is now a grandfather, said he learned English upon entering
school at age 4 or 5. In that environment, he said he was immersed in the English language and learned quickly how to read and speak it.

"It was the only way that I learned it. The teacher only spoke in English and, for me, it was pretty easy to pick up," he said.

Even though an Oglala Sioux Tribal Council resolution states that the Lakota language is the official language of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, speaking Lakota at council meetings is the exception rather than the rule.

"That's why we have difficulty with the council talking to the people in their districts," Red Cloud said.

The older population is more comfortable speaking in their native language, and also have limited understanding of English, he said.

At council meetings, Red Cloud often translates in both English and Lakota for those who have difficulty understanding English.

But he believes that everyone serving on the Oglala Sioux Tribe Council should know the Lakota language.

Like Red Cloud, Little Finger's first language was Lakota. And Little Finger also learned his second language in school, but education drew him off the reservation and eventually into a career that took him throughout the United States.

Although Little Finger values and continues to speak the Lakota language, it is a practice that other native families have abandoned. In business transactions, entertainment, and talking to medical providers, English is the dominant language.

"If you can't speak English, you're out," Little Finger said. "That's our struggle."

Little Finger says the loss of language includes a loss of cultural history. To lose the language is to lose understanding of a unique people, he said.

"Lakota to me is a way of life; they can never kill our way of life," Little Finger said.

Like Little Finger, Stephanie Charging Eagle emphasizes that the language encompasses not only their culture, but also their spiritual beliefsystem.

"Usually healers, spiritual leaders and specialized healers will acquire their power through a dream or vision," she said.

In today's society, more of these healers are not speaking the language. The language is not being passed down from healer to healer, Charging Eagle said.

"We're losing our spiritual strength," she said.

Charging Eagle said that on a scale from extinct to dynamic, the Lakota language falls somewhere in the middle.

"Conversationally, we are stabilized," she said.

Within the communities, fluent conversations in Lakota still take place at such social gatherings as celebrations, funerals, memorials and powwows, she said.

But she said revitalization of the language is needed in the areas of education, governmental affairs, business, spiritual and kinship systems.

"Nobody addresses each other by the relationship terms, and so that area is really being lost," Charging Eagle said.

In the kinship system, addressing each other by relationship terms immediately signals a level of respect for individuals and for each other as a group.

"So when you have children no longer addressing their parents, each other and older people by relationship terms, then the idea of respect gets lost," Charging Eagle said.

Wayne Evans' first language was Lakota. For Evans, it is a source of pride and surprise that he maintained his fluency in Lakota even after his family moved off the reservation when he completed eighth grade.

"It's a miracle I didn't lose it," Evans said.

Grounded in his culture, he would process his personal issues in his native language. He used the language to address his spiritual side and thought in his native language when reviewing his day.

"There has to be a sustained environment; there has to be a need to use the language," he said.

Evans said maintaining the language is as important as teaching it. But he said that is difficult in today's world of electronic communication.

Game Boys, PlayStations, books, movies, magazines, radio, music and TV saturate the lives of Lakota youth in English, he said.

"From the time you get up and every time you turn around, you're bombarded by it," Evans said.

Fostering a revival
Both the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River Sioux reservations are fostering revivals to keep their language alive.

Little Finger met with officials from Indiana University in Bloomington to work on methodology, orthography, linguistics and software in the Lakota language. The university has a record of helping with language recovery in
other Indian tribes, such as the Pawnee, Assiniboine and Arikara.

In South Dakota, Indiana University has formed a consortium with the Loneman, Red Cloud and Wounded Knee District schools.

There, they will work on providing computer programs and curriculum materials, including textbooks and teacher training, Little Finger said.

"It will be taught as a second language and as an integrated immersion curriculum," he said.

Similarly, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has incorporated its native language into classrooms. At the elementary and secondary schools in Eagle Butte, Takini and Tiospaye Topa, two projects have been introduced.

Rosie Roach, program director of the Cheyenne River Schools Resource Consortium, has overseen Cinca Wakpa Waste, a language development project for grades K-2; and Yuowanca, a program for children in Head Start through 10th grade.

More than a dozen fluent speakers of Lakota are at her disposal, and they are assigned to various classrooms.

"We put fluent speakers into the classroom to team-teach with the teachers," Roach said.

Materials, songs and legends are tied into themes and then presented along with regular classroom studies. Roach also helps organize a summer immersion camp. This year, the students will take part in their third summer of camp, where every syllable, utterance and gesture emulates that of the students' ancestors.

Asked what would make the programs better, Roach quickly replies that more teacher involvement and time would make a huge difference.

"We need more time and training," she said.

Evans said that he realizes the Lakota language is being taught in high schools and colleges ­ which the USD professor believes to be a correct concept "especially at an earlier age" ­ but he also knows that a fluent speaker has yet to graduate from a classroom.

But fluency can be taught to older students, if there is interest and a society to encourage speaking and thinking in that language, he said.

Time, however, is running out for the pool of fluent speakers still available to talk to those learning. If any of the language classes have produced fluent speakers, Evans isn't aware of them. "I don't see the results of that," he said.

Oglala, 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, 2004 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, 2004 of Paul C. Barry.

All Rights Reserved.

Site Meter
Thank You

Valid HTML 4.01!