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Fluent Lakota speakers running out of time
Symposium searches for ways to preserve Native languages.
by Jomay Steen, Rapid City (SD) Journal staff Thursday, November 13, 2008
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"We're really in a race against time," said Ryan Wilson of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages.

The Lakota, Dakota, Nakota Language Summit: Uniting the Seven Council Fire to Save the Language has brought together a mix of 400 Native American educators, language experts and traditional fluent speakers. They are here to determine how to keep their languages from disappearing.

The challenge is about more than words.

"Language is culture, and culture is language," said Chief Cameron Alexis of the Nakota Sioux from west of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

That also was the message of spiritual leader Arvol Looking Horse. At the summit's opening session, he prayed in Lakota and later spoke to the group in English about the connections of language, Native culture and sacred sites.

For the traditions at the very core of his people's lives to continue, the language must be preserved, he said.

Since age 12, he has been the carrier of the sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe. At the summit, he did not show it or use it in ceremonies.

With the pipe, seven ceremonies introduced the Lakota nation to its values, morals and traditions. Yet, language fluency is key to those ceremonies and songs, he said.

"The language is used to conduct the ceremonies," he said.

And the ceremonies are part of the everyday culture and the distinction of being Native.

The shared fear is the loss of fluent Native speakers. Those people, mostly elders, are dying; meanwhile, modern media pull youths' attention from participation in traditional cultural activities, and accepted schoolhouse teaching methods are failing.

On Wyoming's Wind River Reservation, people in the Arapaho Tribe counted on teaching the language in school, similar to how math and other classes are taught in a system approved by federal and state regulators.

"After 35 years of teaching at Wind River, not one student is a fluent speaker. These methods, ... they're not working," Wilson said.

He left a lucrative job in Washington, D.C., at the urging of his stepfather to return to the Wind River Reservation to battle for languages that are critical for all Native cultures.

Wilson said his stepfather saw the answer to capturing fluency by teaching children in a language-immersion school. With Wilson's help, an immersion school was funded, built and opened in 12 months. But it wasn't easy.

"Language is an emotional issue," Wilson said.

It can prove to be a divisive community issue with a lot of politics involved. "Don't get caught up in that debate. We don't have time for it," he said.

Wilson would prefer instructors concentrate on language, rather than curricula brought to Natives by the state, federal government or the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"We have a right to define what is taught to our children," he said.

But unlike those children taught in his stepfather's school, Wilson is not a fluent speaker.

Chief Alexis said most of his tribe's members ages 35 and older were fluent in Nakota, but young people and students, ages 25 and younger, spoke only a few basic words.

"We have to get back to our roots. Our young people have to be proud of who they are," he said.

Stephanie Charging Eagle agreed. Lakota was her first language, and she learned English at school, and she said she she is thankful for both languages because they instill in her a higher plain of thinking.

"We're part of a global community of language," she said.

Charging Eagle was sympathetic to those who experienced the boarding school punishments and shame when speaking their Native language. However, she also believes that a nation and its individual members can move beyond those experiences.

"One thing that I have learned is that you have to put this into perspective. I have to ask myself, 'How do I go forward?'" she said.

Healing, spirituality, family units, education are all connected with language, she said. It is tied to culture that is unique in the entire world.

Language shouldn't be drudgery, but a revelation, she said. "We are going to learn Lakota because that is who we are."

Contact Jomay Steen at 394-8418 or

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