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Lakota: The Revitalization of Language and the Persistence of Spirit

Society & Culture  (tags: activists, americans, children, culture, education, ethics, family, freedoms, government, law, media, politics, religion, society, women )

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New programs to teach and restore the lost language and cultural heritage of the Lakota Sioux offers hope for the children who live on reservations where dire poverty, suicide, unemployment and substance abuse have become a way of life.

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Kit B (276)
Monday October 8, 2012, 12:32 pm
(Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (Photo: Hamner_Fotos)

New programs to teach and restore the lost language and cultural heritage of the Lakota Sioux offers hope for the children who live on reservations where dire poverty, suicide, unemployment and substance abuse have become a way of life.

For more than a century the Lakota language endured a deliberate and systematic attempt to eradicate it.

As a tool of colonization, the killing of language was a means of severing indigenous people's ties to their culture, history and spirituality.

General Richard Henry Pratt in 1878 formed the first of many Indian boarding schools designed to "elevate" the Lakota to white culture. According to the Amnesty International article titled "Soul Wound: The Legacy of Native American Schools," more than 100,000 Native Americans were "forced by the US government to attend Christian schools."

The system, which began with President Ulysses Grant's 1869 "peace policy," continued well into the 20th century. Church officials, missionaries and local authorities took children as young as age 5 from their parents and shipped them off to Christian boarding schools. They were separated from their families most of the year, sometimes without a single family visit. Parents caught trying to hide their children lost food rations.

At the schools, native children were forced to worship as Christians. Their hair was cut, traditional clothing was banned and, according to "Soul Wound," the elimination of native languages - considered an obstacle to the "acculturation" process - was a top priority. Teachers devised an extensive repertoire of punishments for uncooperative children, which included mouths being "scrubbed with lye and chlorine."

The horror of the boarding school system actually went much further. In Canada, as Amnesty International explains, "a 2001 report by the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada documents the responsibility of the Roman Catholic Church, the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada and the federal government in the deaths of more than 50,000 native children in the Canadian residential school system.

The report explains how "church officials killed children by beating, poisoning, electric shock, starvation, prolonged exposure to sub-zero cold while naked, as well as medical experimentation, including the removal of organs and radiation exposure.

In 1928 Alberta passed legislation allowing school officials to forcibly sterilize native girls; British Columbia followed suit in 1933. There is no accurate record of forced sterilizations because hospital staff destroyed records in 1995 after police launched an investigation. But according to the testimony of a nurse in Alberta, doctors sterilized entire groups of native children when they reached puberty. The report also says that Canadian clergy, police and business and government officials "rented out" children from residential schools to pedophile rings."

These methods of dehumanization are contributing factors to the intergenerational or historical trauma still affecting the Lakota Nation today.

There are no children on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota who are fluent speakers of the Lakota language.

Speaking About the Future

Thipiziwin Young is one of a group of Lakota who are now determined to change that.

Young, a Lakota second-language learner and Lakota language activities instructor, is working with a team in Standing Rock's very first Lakota language-immersion classroom. The class consists of 12 preschool-age students, two language activities instructors and a first-language-fluent speaker. The class is held at Sitting Bull College.

The program is made possible under a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Native Americans. Students are as young as 3 years old. Everything, including all learning materials, is presented in the Lakota language. No English is permitted to be spoken in the room. The goal is to develop first-language acquisition skills that allow children to become natural thinkers, singers and speakers of Lakota in a fluid and imaginative way.

"It's a reality that's hard to swallow for our people," Young told Truthout, about the dearth of Lakota-fluent children on Standing Rock. "There are some children on the reservations that have zero exposure to the Lakota language."

Young, a mother of three, is a graduate of the Lakota Language Education Action Program, or LLEAP. The program is a collaboration between Sitting Bull College tribal leaders, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's education department and the Lakota Language Consortium.

According to its web site, "LLEAP courses offer intensive college-level study of the Lakota language. Graduating students will be at the forefront of educating the next generation of fluent speakers."

Young is from Fort Yates, North Dakota, a community that has seen their language diminished more than most.

"How people look at us is how we often end up defining ourselves", says Young. "We live in a place where all these negative statistics are sky-high and that's our everyday reality", she says, speaking of the high rates of suicide, poverty and unemployment throughout her reservation.

Undeterred, Young explains, "We do have fluent speakers and we do have the support of each other, of the people, of our tribal government; we have a lot on the positive side and the window of opportunity is open. We are prepared to use that to its fullest extent and ready to see a turnaround."

Believing that her language is just "sleeping," Young says, "We are capable of bringing our language to where it belongs in our everyday lives - in our homes, on our streets, in our stores and in our schools."

Within the next ten years," insists Young, "There will be fluent children in Lakota country once again. They will be the first in maybe three or four generations."

While learning the language was once viewed as activism or resistance by some, Young believes that now "through the children and grandchildren coming up, we are just embracing who we are. We speak Lakota because we are Lakota."

Jennifer Weston, a Hunkpapa Lakota, is program manager for Endangered Languages at Cultural Survival. The organization'sr mission states, "Cultural Survival works toward a world in which indigenous peoples speak their languages, live on their land, control their resources, maintain thriving cultures and participate in broader society on equal footing with other peoples. We provide advocacy to amplify indigenous voices around the world and provide support of their efforts to strengthen communities."

Weston explained to Truthout that "most of our first-language speakers are probably in their mid- to late-50s now and we don't have a very high life expectancy." Standing Rock life expectancy is believed to be about 47 years for men, 58 for women.

Realizing that her mother, Marjorie Edwards, a fluent first-language Lakota speaker and teacher who passed away recently at age 59, was part of the last generation of first-language speakers, Weston has committed herself to the revitalization of indigenous languages. She writes and co-produces, which is an informative web site, dedicated to Native American language revitalization. It is the companion site to "We Still Live Here," a film about the return of the Wampanoag language. Weston served as assistant producer.

"By the time we are in our 30s, we are going to be looking at a five- to ten-year window where we may not have any first-language speakers there to teach us," says Weston.

For the Lakota, reviving their language goes far beyond communication.

"It relates to our long-term prospects in terms of improving health outcomes." Weston says. "I don't think it is any mistake, or any accident, that we've had such a rise in teen suicide. You know, that's something that really wasn't widely-known in our communities until the 80s and 90s, and today it's still a big problem on a lot of reservations and that really correlates with generations of young people who grew up completely without language in their life, without a real tangible connection to Lakota spirituality and to our ceremonies."

Weston explains, "A lot of us grew up attending sweats and the Sundance," she says, referring to the sweat lodge and Sundance ceremonies of purification and renewal, "but if we are only able to participate in them in English, or if we have somebody translate them to us, there is a very real fear that we're losing sight of a real connection to the bigger picture of our culture. That's the link to our identities and making sure that kids are able to reconnect eventually with a more positive outlook for our communities ... and really inspires kids to break the cycle of addictions that are so prevalent in our communities in terms of alcoholism and drug abuse."

For Weston, "If you are really grounded in your language and your culture, and you're more concerned about preparing for a particular ceremony," then having the false sense of connection through drug or alcohol use isn't needed. "That's not a factor for you," she says. "Drop-out rates for high school students are as high as 50 percent in a lot of tribal schools, and most of those kids don't ever have the opportunity to learn their language in any significant way."

Lakota as the Language of the Land

As Young explains, "I think it is a very beautiful thing to be Lakota or Dakota, to live here on our own lands and learning our own language; and I truly believe that our language is tied to our land. How many years our land has heard our language, I just believe it belongs here."

To the Lakota, language is culture. The compartmentalization of all aspects of life is a foreign concept forced on them by western systems of thought, much the way that English was.

The Lakota language "gives children a sense of how our ancestors related to everything. We have the phrase, 'mitakuye oyasin,' that we all learn as a way of closing a prayer, or expressing 'we are all related,'" Weston explained to Truthout.

"Once you start to learn the language you understand that that's how people really treated one another. That's how they treated everything that they did, whether it was hunting or preparing for a ceremony," she says. "Everything was in relation to something else. You are behaving in a way that is respectful and cognizant of maintaining these relationships, and treating not only other people, but other beings and other parts of your environment, with that same sense of kinship."

Young concludes, "Being a part of the language and learning the language has helped me have a really better life, a higher quality of life here in my home, where most people agree that it's kind of a hard place to live and grow up; but there's a lot of good things happening here in our homelands." The revitalization of her language, for Young, "has really brought me a quality of life that I never before imagined was even possible."

"I encourage everyone and anyone to learn the language."

Maybe we all should.

By Jason Coppola, Truthout | News Analysis

JL A (281)
Monday October 8, 2012, 2:05 pm
May these cultural linguistic preservation and revitalization programs work

Past Member (0)
Monday October 8, 2012, 4:07 pm
Mitakuye oyasin! The Native Americans knew this and lived accordingly. If only the greedy Europeans who came had understood this universal truth. I might just try to lean the language....keep the brain cells busy Thanks Kit.

Sandra M Z (114)
Monday October 8, 2012, 10:20 pm
"An Incredible Persistance of Spirit", could be a class they teach to all the People of the Earth, these times call for it!

Noted, Thank you Kit.

pam w (139)
Monday October 8, 2012, 11:15 pm
So many native cultures were devastated by Christian missionaries and the greed of territorial expansion! I sincerely hope they can salvage something of whatever is left to them!

Past Member (0)
Tuesday October 9, 2012, 12:13 am

Susan L (150)
Tuesday October 9, 2012, 12:14 am
I wholeheartedly agree, Pam.

wendy webber (28)
Tuesday October 9, 2012, 1:48 am
This is awesome and much needed.I was so glad to read this after reading,noting and signing the article about the numbers of Lakota children being sucked up and into the system. That is so tragic and hopefully this can help to be an antidote to all who have suffered as a result of their heritage.Arrogance and superiority have been the ruin of so many wonderful things.I celebrate with these folks and for the restoration of their day to day cultural activities and lives.Namaste'

Giana P (398)
Tuesday October 9, 2012, 3:06 am
The tragedy of the Native American's plight is devastating and reading about how they were treated sickens and appalls me. This program is a great project and so important to knowing one's heritage and accepting and becoming proud of it.

Frans Badenhorst (582)
Tuesday October 9, 2012, 4:31 am

Tamara Hayes (185)
Tuesday October 9, 2012, 6:36 am
Noted Kit. Thank you. I think it is wonderful that the Lakota are starting to take back their heritage and in doing so, they are assuring that the future generations are able to connect and identify with who they are and where they come from. Being able to preserve ones own heritage is a right that should never have been taken away. As usual the white man had to come along and play father knows best when in fact he knows nothing at all.

Sheryl G (363)
Tuesday October 9, 2012, 6:39 am
In the article:

In Canada, as Amnesty International explains, "a 2001 report by the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada documents the responsibility of the Roman Catholic Church, the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada and the federal government in the deaths of more than 50,000 native children in the Canadian residential school system.

The report explains how "church officials killed children by beating, poisoning, electric shock, starvation, prolonged exposure to sub-zero cold while naked, as well as medical experimentation, including the removal of organs and radiation exposure.

My comment:

Thank you Kit for placing this on the C2 news, it is vital that Dominent Culture learns of these things. As with the Holocaust in Germany, that needs to be kept out there as a reminder, this too needs to be learned and kept in the view of many eyes, to try to keep it from happening again. Already what was done in Germany is trying by some to be rewritten or denied it ever even did happen, so too were the stories of these children buried in unmarked graves, the article said, as recent as 1995 to have records intentionally destroyed to cover the dastardly deeds.

A year ago I placed a story on titled Mass Genocide of Mohawk Children if anyone would care to read it they can go to the link below.
Mass Genocide of Mohawk Children

I know there was one on the thread who disputed some things concerning the article that had touched me so deep I just could not deal with anymore. My heart is so wounded when it comes to the children and what happened. At the end, a First Nations person came on and they too obviously emotionally touched by "personal" experience had used one foul word in the comment, so the whole comment of Truth was eliminated as I imagine the other one who was in disagreement had flagged for removal. However Jytte had seen comment and I saw the comment, and I do believe I may of copied the comment and saved it somewhere before it was removed. It was passionate, it held a lot of Truth, and it was from someone who had the words that were failing me at that time, while I was in my deep sorrow.

The story touched me as I saw in the eyes of a friend of mine, her story, I heard by my ears, her story, how when she was 8 years old and in Boarding School, she too was told not to use her language. That one night a little friend of the same age lay very ill in her bed covered by a thin blanket. The little girl was denied medical care and so was left to lay in her bed away from her family and any care. The only compassion was from my friend who told me what had taken place.

As the little girl lay ill, my friend 8 years old herself, sang quietly to her in their language, the Lakota language. She had to sing softly as it was forbidden, but it was all she had to offer this little school friend of hers. All night singing softly to the little girl who in the night passed away. In the morning the adults she said came in, noticed she was dead and wrapped her body in the blanket and took her outside. She said she stood at the window watching a man digging a hole and then the little girl was placed in this unmarked grave, with no ceremony and no family there to cry for her loss. Then my friend said she was grabbed on the shoulder and yelled at to get away from the window that she had chores.

These are children and their horror stories. This is real life. These people who experienced such things are walking among us all, they just quietly carry those wounds. Those are the ones that don't drink themselves to death, or are putting guns to their heads as my friends husband did when he couldn't stand the memories of those times of the Boarding School and the horrors of VietNam and the affects of Agent Orange. What is the USA allowing it's own people to suffer through? Just because it isn't you, did not mean it didn't happen, and isn't still happening today in some form.

By failing to see what is going on in this Country and Canada we fail to see that it only for the Grace of God go I. That these dark entities still exist, that these humans with this Preditory energy, that all these Heartless Ones still also walk among us, and can turn on anyone of us in a heartbeat. When we fail to see or stand up to the pain of our brothers and sisters we create more pain for another generation. We see it in the children being ripped away in the Foster system in South Dakota, see my story link below, we see it in the wounded coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, do we never learn?
The Lakota Child Rescue Project and Petition

Words have Power.......

Is why Dominent Culture wanted to erase their words.

Is why it is important to get their words back. To "think" in their words.

Kit B (276)
Tuesday October 9, 2012, 7:57 am

Historically the invaders or conquers have often forced those conquered to surrender their own identity. I suppose one could say that the early invaders were just following an age old attitude. Now there is no excuse, we do know better, we could be more understanding, accepting and learn from this wise old culture.

Vallee R (280)
Tuesday October 9, 2012, 8:18 am
I do so hope it continues - thank Kit!

SuSanne P (193)
Tuesday October 9, 2012, 1:04 pm
Thank you Kit. I didn't think I had any tears left after reading this submission (especially the horrors I was completely unaware of by my fellow Canadians) until I read Dandelions post. I'm too distraught to speak another word other than I hope this continues before it is too late.
To quote Sandra..."An Incredible Persistence of Spirit", could be a class they teach to all the People of the Earth, these times call for it!

Michael M (60)
Wednesday October 10, 2012, 10:26 am
Thank you to ALL comments!

Standing Rock is a large reservation.
Many Lakota have known that this vision of relationship and teaching is an important part of the Lakota Way.
Other tribes also knew this of the Lakota, and respected and allied with them.

There are a number of online sites which are helping to spread the Lakota language. You can find them very easily.

Right now, though the Oceti Sakwin (the Seven Council Fires) of allied and related bands and tribes appear to the outside world to be among the poorest people financially in the US, they are in spirit the wealthiest due to the good intent, the great healing medicine which pervades their interaction with the world from their center.

At the heart of people, especially these people, you will find a generosity toward all. I must remind others that the disputes ("wars") they fought with the US military an exploiters were always defensive. Even though the Lakota had their large treaty lands taken due to their victory against an aggressor who shall here remain unnamed, they retain and increase their traditional spirit and vision.

In the Indian (many use this word proudly, so I use it inclusively) traditions, generosity is the hallmark of the relationship of all. Whenever circumstances arise giving the opportunity to give (this is the meaning of the Sundance to all the Sundance Peoples), remember that in the act of giving you receive far, far more, so that the giving itself is gaining true wealth.
This is our triumph, glory; it is our very being. (I remember the people of my great grandmother. The Earth is also our greatest grandmother, and so they are your relatives, to be always cherished and learned from)

For those who do not live or visit the Nation of Lakotah, let it exist vibrantly in your heart.

The Oceti Sakowin are the Relative-Makers, the Brother People - by these names they were known to others. Send them your spirit, always your most vital assistance.

Know them, and know a little of your own deepest dreams.

Say, along with me: Mitakuyepe, nachi'un welo.

Ali M (1)
Wednesday October 10, 2012, 8:55 pm
truely a wonderful resurrection of something that should have never been lost!

Sue healy (0)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 5:52 am
The Lakota people are indigenous people, our forefathers were the ignorant greedy immigrants who stole their land and slaughtered their women children and braves for gold. This was and continues to be wrong. I urge everyone interested in helping to do your research and look up ONE SPIRIT. This is a group that allows you to "sponsor" families and individuals in dire need. They put you in direct contact with the family who tells you what their needs are. One family has two teenage boys that are about to drop out of school because they have no clothing that is suitable for school. Come on people wake up! This is the United States of America and we are responsible for these people...We feed clothe and medically take care of thousands of "illegal" immigrants, how about taking care of the ORIGINAL people who were here and put on the reservation due to our forefathers greed and misguided judgement!! Please help, people are dying...
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