Education | Opinion

Ivan Star Comes Out: We must speak Lakota to keep it from dying

Ivan F. Star Comes Out

Retaining our language means speaking it at home and in communities all of the time not just in school
By Ivan F. Star Comes Out
Native Sun News Today Columnist

Native population numbers declined radically the day Columbus arrived in this hemisphere of the globe but no one’s talking about it. European diseases, traveling faster than the settlers, decimated native populations. Modern historians place the survival rate at about ten percent. Today most of 2.5 million natives reside in major cities while the rest remain on their ancestral homelands (“Indian” reservations).

An old Lakota word, wicotakunisni (eradication of people), defines the destruction of native people including the diseases to which they had no immunity. War was waged on them which destroyed their lifestyles, belief systems, sovereignty or self-governance, food sources, the family unit, histories, traditions, and language. Scholars estimate that about 200 languages survived.

In the mid-1880s, at the behest of the newcomer’s greed for gold, their new government became combative toward the surviving Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires). Eventually, a peace treaty (one of many) written by United States representatives, was ratified in 1868. Congress, realizing it could not completely eradicate the remaining “savages,” endeavored to turn them into their own likeness.

Thus the treaty included the “civilization” of “Indians” by means of an “English education.” This legalized the forced removal of native children from their parents and isolated them in their xenophobic boarding schools (1886-1890) where they carried out their intense integration policy.

At the same time, according to the treaty, their parents were allocated necessities to become farmers and ranchers. They were confined to their own homelands and were required to ask for permission to leave. After living thousands of years with their itinerant, food-gathering, lifestyle successfully, the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) were expected to be like the white man in a mere two hundred years.

Meanwhile, the children were shorn of their hair and their languages were forcibly prohibited with severe and often brutal punishment. In effect, usage of their beloved Dakota/Lakota/Nakota language began to decline as more and more natives lost their desire or ability to speak it. The philosophical attributes that comprised their time-honored culture are also facing total obliteration today.

It is strange that in the midst of this destruction, some of the newcomers began to record our languages on paper. A 1723 text written by Augustin de Quintana referenced some language linguistics regarding “Indians” of Mexico. Since that time, numerous dictionaries, grammar, and vocabulary books, have been written.

The first vocabulary on “Sioux” and “Chippewa” languages was written in 1823. I counted 15 books (grammar, vocabulary, and dictionaries) written by both non-Lakota and Lakota authors. The latest rave is the orthography developed by the Lakota Language Consortium (LLC). As Lakota educators, we must realize that despite the great promise shown by each of these works, our language is still dying.

Read the rest of the story on the Native Sun News Today website: Retaining our language means speaking it at home and in communities all of the time not just in school

(Ivan F. Star Comes Out can be reached at PO Box 147, Oglala, SD 57764; 605-867-2448 or via email at

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