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The Fight Against Language Loss: Lakota Language Weekend in Sioux Falls

Jackie Hendry

Before colonization, the indigenous peoples of North America spoke nearly 500 different languages. Today, there are only 20 languages with enough speakers for a revitalization effort. 

Lakota is one of them.

The Lakota Language Consortium hosted a Lakota Language Weekend in South Dakota's largest city last weekend. 

Credit Jackie Hendry
Ben Black Bear (standing, far right) uses songs and stories to teach Lakota in conversational context.

Allen Wilson remembers hearing his grandma chat enthusiastically with friends in Lakota when he was growing up. He grew up on the Rosebud Reservation, and he also remembers one of the first moments he understood Lakota. It was a windy day at home with his mother.

“It’s a two-story house, and one of the windows was open. And the wind closed one of the doors and my mom said, 'Oooh, gigi.' And just from the context I knew it was like, 'Ooh, there’s a ghost there!' And I’ll always remember that.”

Wilson took some Lakota language classes back in college, but was discouraged by the difficulty. But when he moved back home after living in New Mexico, he had a renewed desire to learn. He finished a degree in Lakota history and culture, and became a teacher. It was then he realized…

“… the Lakota language was really in danger of disappearing. I think they said out of 176 thousand enrolled members on reservations in South Dakota, there’s a little over 2 thousand fluent speakers left. Which is a really, really small number.”

Wilson’s now involved with the Lakota Language Consortium. It’s a non-profit created in 2004 that supplies Lakota dictionaries, textbooks, and other materials to schools, tribes, and individual learners across the country.

Wil Meya is the executive director. He explains that while Lakota has more speakers than some other Native languages, there is still cause for concern.

"We’re at the point where we’ve lost over 90% of the speaker population. And we’re just not able to replace them fast enough. Currently we’d need to be producing 100-200 speakers a year just to maintain the levels we have.

The Lakota Language consortium’s programs produce 20 to 30 speakers a year. Meya says that’s not enough.

“That’s why we’re in places like Sioux Falls and Rapid City trying to get people engaged in really what we call a movement to take back and get the language spoken again.”

And the movement is open to anyone. At the recent Lakota Language Weekend instructors held two days of intensive language lessons at Southeast Tech in Sioux Falls. Students young and old, Native and non-Native, attended because they want to learn the language.

Stella Lawrence is a massage student from Mitchell and heard about the class from a friend. Lawrence has relatives who speak Lakota. She and her mom have talked about learning it together.  

 “But she’s in a different state and so I told her about this opportunity. So she said, ‘Take your sister and get to that class!’ And I was like, alright, I’m gonna do it.”

Lawrence’s sister, Cheyene, is a high school junior in Chamberlain. She remembers hearing her grandparents speak Lakota and wondering about the language.

 “At first, before coming to this class, I was kinda, ‘Mmm, I’ll try it.’ In this class though the tutors and instructors inspired me…So, it’s kinda like, when he’s talking about it, I remembered it and thought it’s gonna take some work but I think it’ll be worth it.”

The classes at the Lakota Language Weekend focused on conversational instruction. Allen Wilson and other teachers use examples so students can learn in context—like that moment when he was 8 years old and realized he knew what his mother was saying. Wilson and Ben Black Bear—another instructor from the  Rosebud Reservation—demonstrate identifying different age groups for men and women.

Wilson calls another instructor a young boy—someone who clearly isn’t—and in context some of the students catch the joke. But there are plenty of blank stares. Some get hung up on questions about verb tense and exact translation, but are encouraged to pick up clues from careful listening, practice, and context--the way everyone learns their first language as a child.

It’s an intense method, but Ben Black Bear says it’s the best. Lakota was his first language, and he’s been teaching it for nearly 50 years.

“In other words, the bottom line is learning the language is more important than learning the rules and the grammar and things like that. The sound system and stuff like that. All that comes in the process of learning the language. As long as that’s emphasized with the teachers, the language will grow and spread.”

Black Bear uses other methods too, like translating well known songs to Lakota to teach a handful of words and phrases at once.

Before colonization, Lakota wasn’t a written language. But Wilson says to survive, it needs to be—so young people can write or text in Lakota. Black Bear says the changing nature of the language is a challenge, but it’s worthwhile so young people and students can learn.

“I think this interest in reviving the language and teaching it to young people, it’s gonna help young people to expand their knowledge, expand their minds and understand things that they otherwise wouldn’t if they only spoke one of the languages…”

Wilson is scared by the dwindling number of Lakota speakers, but encourages learners to build a new community.

“But really it’s that I hope that I inspire someone to self study, to be disciplined, to be a teacher of Lakota, to really put that effort forth, to help in the fight against language loss. I need allies for sure! Again it can seem like a daunting task. But these are our first steps in revitalizing Lakota. But I’ve a feeling it’s only going to get bigger from here, and better, and stronger! ”

The final lesson of the first day of this Lakota Language Weekend: there’s no phrase for goodbye in Lakota. Instead there’s more of a farewell.

To?ks?a akhe? wa?c?hi?ya?ki? kte.

In Lakota: I will see you again.