Ivan F. Star Comes Out. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today
Education | Opinion

Ivan Star Comes Out: Education must emphasize our cultural identity

Cultural identity contributes greatly to self-esteem

By Ivan Star Comes Out
Native Sun News Today Columnist

It should have been common knowledge by now that our ancestors endured atrocity after atrocity at the hands of a displaced European with an extreme greed for wealth and material gain. I find it very difficult to look at these people as civilized. Moreover, I cannot avoid thinking about the hardships we continue to endure today, as a colonized group of native people.

The early Europeans believed that since they “discovered” the land, they owned it. Their only intent was to lay claim to the continent. However, they could not do so as a bunch of “savages” were occupying the land. Diligent annihilation efforts were carried out against them. When the colonizers realized they were unable to do that, they forced native children to think and behave like “good Indians.”

This historic process or event was highly traumatic for the continent’s original inhabitants and continues to enervate their descendants. An example is the continuing loss of Lakota language. I heard an elder ask, “Why do people from other countries, like France and Germany, come here for a short stay and are able to learn our language while our Lakota people cannot learn it?”

Actually, it is not just our language and culture that were negatively impacted. There is the alcoholism, drug addiction, single-parenthood or the forced collapse of the family unit, abuse of children and elders, poor health, a short lifespan, and now suicide. Did our ancestors have to deal with widespread apathy, a shameful need to be taken cared for, high dropout rates and low academic achievement levels?

This trauma has remained unresolved for several generations of descendants. The resulting modern-day problems are everywhere. At the same time, people tend to minimize it with, “Oh, it’s like that everywhere in this country” or “Forget it and move on!” The problems are deeply problematic. Here are some examples of a long-standing situation regarding language loss.

Around the time of Wounded Knee Massacre (1890), Reverend Eugene Beuchel, a German Jesuit priest, learned to speak our language and being a linguist developed a dictionary and a grammar book. In the early 1960s, another Jesuit priest, Dr. John Bryde, a Jesuit superintendent at the Catholic School known as Holy Rosary Mission (now Red Cloud Indian School), also learned Lakota.

I always remember an odd incident during a graduation ceremony in the very early 60s. A Lakota elder was to speak at the commencement ceremony but he did not speak English. So, a call was put out to the audience for an interpreter. Not getting any volunteers, Dr. Bryde decided to translate for the elder. Imagine that, a Euro-American from Kansas translating Lakota into English for a Lakota audience.

A Frenchman warmly called “Didi,” also spent some time with a Lakota-language proficient family on the Rosebud and became proficient in the language. And in more recent times, a young man by the name of Peter Hill also learned Lakota and now operates a Lakota language immersion school.

A couple of years ago, a young East German lady by the name of Sonya John came to the Pine Ridge under a VISA and studied and earned a degree at Oglala Lakota College. She later achieved her Ph.D. During her brief time here on the Pine Ridge, Dr. John learned to speak Lakota.

Lastly, Loneman School has been involved with “teaching” Lakota language since 1976 under the graces of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, (P.L. 93-638). However, the fact that the school did not produce language speakers remains a harsh reality. It is hard pill to swallow, especially after 40 years trying to transmit Lakota language.

I struggled to understand this reality wherein European people can easily learn our language and Lakota people seem reluctant. The only cause that comes to mind is rooted in the U.S. policy of “Manifest Destiny.” Modern Europeans did not have to witness the trauma of having their lifestyle destroyed. Our ancestors did not come to terms with it and instead passed it on their descendants.

American expansionism destroyed a beautiful indigenous way of life. Colonialism is the policy of a nation extending and maintaining its authority over other people and/or territories, generally with the aim of exploiting the people and land to the benefit of the colonizer and helping the colonies modernize in their own terms, especially in economics, religion, and health.

Expansionist practices include the spread of colonial languages (English only), literature and cultural institutions, while endangering or obliterating those of native people. This calamity includes the spread of virulent diseases, unequal social relations, exploitation, enslavement, and the creation of new institutions. Its impact (s) on native people is immense, widespread, and traumatic.

Colonialism explains the endless adversity under which we have struggled, even as we enter the 21st century. We are now facing an extinction of language and culture. Recent studies (K. Hunter, 1992; K. Lone Hill. 1994) indicate this loss. Both authors indicated a tiny speaker percentage among the youth while the smaller, and continually dwindling, 80-year-old group had a 90% speaker rating.

Our ancestors believed an “English” education would enable us to be competitive enough to live comfortably in the new colonial society. What they did not foresee was that their children would be forced to lose their language, culture, and identity (“kill the Indian and save the man”). What we today may not have realized is that colonialism is still active.

Is there a way out of this predicament? I say yes. We certainly must stop looking to the federal bureaucracy to fix it for us because that is where colonialism was created and is maintained. We are the only ones with the capacity to improve life for us. We must raise our awareness of colonialism, also called Manifest Destiny, expansionism, imperialism, and neocolonialism.

Modern educators must decide if they are promoting colonialism when they reward or recognize our students for academic excellence and/or progress, especially without language and culture? Are we promoting the century-old assimilation process? Rethinking and redirecting our educational efforts toward decolonization holds great hope for our posterity.

Cultural identity contributes tremendously to self-esteem. We can teach the “Three Rs” day-in and day-out (and we have) but if our students don’t know who they are and have low self-esteem, they will not take to the academics. Regardless of how we look at this, it is real and if we continue to minimize or ignore it, we will continue our demise and even promote a permanent end to our posterity.


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Cultural identity contributes greatly to self-esteem
Ivan F. Star Comes Out can be reached at P.O. Box 147, Oglala, South Dakota, 57764; via phone at 605-867-2448 or via email at mato_nasula2@outlook.com.

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