Wed Mar 15 11:16:40 2006 Pacific Time

      Lakota on Path to Recapture Language

       PINE RIDGE, S.D., March 15 (AScribe Newswire) -- The Lakota Sioux language, made famous through its portrayal in the 1990 film "Dances with Wolves," is now one of only a small handful of Native American languages with enough remaining speakers to survive into the next generation, announced a major language organization. Lakota is currently one of the last major Native American language hold-outs in what is a worldwide crisis of linguistic extinctions.

       To keep the Lakota language from disappearing completely, an ambitious revitalization campaign has been organized by a group of tribal leaders and linguists. The campaign is spearheaded by the nonprofit Lakota Language Consortium, which develops the Lakota-language teaching materials used in 23 area schools and which trains language teachers. The organization's goal is to encourage the use of the language by a new generation of speakers. Children using the group's language materials become proficient in Lakota by the fifth year of use. The group plans to have a fully sequenced curriculum that students can follow from first grade through college.

       The consortium's latest Level 2 textbook is currently being distributed to schools across Indian country. For Leonard Little Finger, the great-great-grandson of Chief Big Foot and one of the group's co-founders, the textbooks symbolize an important milestone for the Lakota. Little Finger notes that, "the effects of government policies were profoundly destructive to our language and our ability to pass it on to our children. These materials are so important because they are the first ever designed to raise children to speak Lakota. Not since before our great-grandparents were confined to the reservations, have we been allowed to raise our children speaking the language. As Lakotas, we will not let our language die, and these books give me hope that my grandchildren, at least, will have the privilege to speak their language."

       Tribal elders and traditional leaders have made it a priority to keep the language alive for future generations. 81-year-old Clarence Wolf Guts, the last surviving Lakota code talker from WWII, points out that, "our people need to know that Lakota had an important position and to learn to be proud to speak Lakota. It is good that the kids are now learning Lakota in the schools." Oglala Sioux Tribe Vice-President, Alex White Plume, shares this opinion and explains that through the group's efforts, "we are finally making some progress in teaching the language to the children."

       The group recently received the nation's leading language revitalization award, the Ken Hale Prize, from the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas. The consortium was distinguished for its outstanding community language work and deep commitment to the promotion and revitalization of Lakota. Still, the group's Linguistic Director, Jan Ullrich, points out that, "revitalizing a language is no easy task and much more needs to be done to educate the public about the state of endangered languages and the needs of indigenous peoples." Ullrich concedes that Native American language loss is an enormous though silent crisis. "The fact is, few people know about the seriousness of the language crisis - that there are perhaps only a dozen languages that have a chance of surviving in the United States out of the original five hundred. When a language disappears, we lose an important record of our human experience - our linguistic heritage. Languages encompass a people's unique and irreplaceable songs, prayers, stories, and ways of seeing the world. Ninety percent of these repositories of knowledge will pass into oblivion unless we do something about it."

       The organization's goal is to expand its revitalization efforts beyond the classroom and to more actively bring the language back into use within the community. They aim to provide incentives for young people to speak the language, to develop Lakota-language television programming, and to expand the literature available in the language. They model their actions on the best practices of other successful language revival efforts from around the world. However, the group's Executive Director, Wilhelm Meya says that funding continues to be the primary obstacle to the return of the language, "government aid is almost nonexistent and there are very few grants available for endangered languages. Individual donations seem to be the only hope endangered languages like Lakota have."

       Luckily, there are other people besides the Lakota themselves who want to see the language preserved. Meya explains that support for the group's effort has come from a number of less common sources such as German nonprofit organizations like the Tatanka Oyate Verein. "We have had to be creative to garner support for our efforts. It's very important that we succeed," Meya says. He also cites several other unique donors to the Lakota language, including the Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation and Sioux Tools. Meya notes that the sports franchise, in particular, "is committed to helping the Lakota language and is a very proud supporter of our cause." Meya explains that individual donors have also played a significant role in helping language rescue efforts. One such donor, Jim Brown of Bemidji, Minnesota, is ardent about the need to support Lakota. He emphasizes, "it is my duty to do whatever I can to help Native American cultures survive. I'm very pleased to be part of this effort to keep the Lakota language alive and available to all of us."

       The remaining Lakota speakers are acutely aware of the high cost of the potential loss of their language. Elmer Bear Eagle, a resident of Wounded Knee, remembers with fondness when most people still spoke Lakota and laments the current state of the language. As an extra in "Dances with Wolves," he was very glad to be able to speak Lakota in the film but observes that, "if we can't save our language soon, all of our children will need to read the subtitles in the movie, just like everybody else, to understand what it being said in Lakota. Then, we will have truly lost our uniqueness as Lakota people."

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