A young Lakota man, maybe seventeen years old, approached me as I waited in line at a local fast food joint to get a cup of coffee. It was the week of the Lakota Nation Invitational Basketball Tournament that is held in Rapid City every December.
The young man shook my hand and said he reads my weekly column in the Todd County Tribune. “You must be from Rosebud,” I said. He grinned and said, “You got that right.” He asked me how to pronounce my Lakota name, Nanwica Kciji. I said, “It is pronounced Nah Wee Chak gee gee.” He tried to say it once, but laughed at his mispronunciation. “What does it mean?” he asked. “It means, Stands Up for Them,” I responded.
I asked him if they had Lakota classes at his school. He said they did, but he and most of his friends were deep into sports and really didn’t have the time to take in the classes. He said a few of his friends knew Lakota words, but most of them were too busy with computers, cell phones and other things to really get into the language.
It made me wonder because there has been a big push of late to re-awaken the language and it has been a fight for the Lakota instructors to get the young people to respond to their message. The Lakota teachers have attempted to remind the young that it was the Lakota language that was the target of the early mission schools and the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. They assumed that if they killed the language the children would be better suited to move on into the world. The missionaries and BIA teachers had definite orders to stifle the language and push English as the number one language. In many ways this approach was nearly successful.
But many of the elders hung on to the language and when the school leaders finally realized they had made a dreadful mistake, the language that was once forbidden was re-introduced as part of the curriculum. At Red Cloud, the school I attended, Lakota speakers like Mathew Two Bulls were brought in to teach the younger children.
The Pine Ridge Reservation, like Rosebud, Standing Rock and Cheyenne River, are huge reservations. Lakota people living in the far reaches of the reservation are fairly isolated from the mainstream and many of these Lakota hung on to the language. The lived in what was known on the reservation as the “traditional districts.”
My father’s generation, those born on the cusp of the 20th Century and into the early part of that century, spoke Lakota as their first language. They were of the first generation to attend the BIA and Indian mission boarding schools. They were already fluent in Lakota before they started school and retained the language when they returned to their homes. But many of them believed whole heartedly the message pounded into their heads in the boarding schools. Their children must learn English and forget the Lakota language if they are to succeed in the 20th Century. They therefore did not teach their children the language and only spoke it when they did not want the children to know what they were talking about.
I am glad to see the renewed efforts of the Lakota elders to bring back the language. But they must not be too harsh on the Lakota people that do not speak the language and the non-Lakota speakers must not blame themselves for not speaking the language. The one thing that brought about the success of organizations like the National Congress of American Indians is the fact that all of those attending their early conferences could speak English. That gave NCAI the ability to bring together people of many Indian nations and help them to find a common goal in order to survive as a unique people.
Without the language the spirituality of the people would have died because the words spoken in the Lakota ceremonies must be spoken in the Lakota language. The elders and the wicasa wakan (holy men) believe that Wakan Tanka (the Great Spirit) will only respond to the Lakota language. Perhaps the missionaries knew this better than anyone else.
I believe it will be a mighty struggle to get the Lakota children of today to once again embrace their Native tongue. The thousands of distractions they have with computers, television, radio, cell phones and computer games make it essential that they master the English language and that leaves them little room to pursue the Lakota language.
But the Native people have endured and the Lakota boy that spoke to me in the restaurant may reach that point in his life when he finds that knowing and speaking his Native language will bring him closer to his roots. And if he chooses not to learn the language, that is also his right and it will not make him any less a Lakota.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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