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

Ivan Star Comes Out: We need to teach culture along with our language

Europeanizing Lakota language is alarming

By Ivan Star Comes Out
Native Sun News Today Columnist

There are many who will not like my opinions here but the posterity of Lakota language and culture is at stake.

As Indian people we have been struggling under a government-granted opportunity to transmit Lakota language to our youth in their schools. However, those efforts to maintain language have taken a new direction. As a Lakota language speaker, I find this recent development alarming.

I appreciate the fact that many adults are learning the Lakota language. In a logical sense though, language acquisition always began with the very young. It was normal to use the language in the home and tiospaye (extended family unit). The classroom is not the ideal place to “teach” Lakota language but if we are to “teach” it in the classroom, the language must be actually used to transmit culture.

Lakota language and culture will have a better chance to grow with a larger field. Today, we have the immersion school which has proven very successful as far as transmitting Lakota language and culture to our very young. The largest glitch with this is that the “immersion” stops when the little ones leave their school and enter the next level of their schooling.

Also, since 1977, our local elementary school’s language program always occupied a tiny space somewhere in the school. Language “teachers” were, and still are, allowed less than 30 minutes per day to reach every student. At best, such programs were allowed only as time and room allowed. Yet, the enormous task of transmitting Lakota language and culture rests on these programs.

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Math, reading, writing, science, history, geography and whatever else is lodged in the curriculum are all important to our native youth if they are to become contributing members of modern society. Why, then is the majority of our native students not performing as expected? Why do they have the highest dropout rates in the nation? Why can’t our students meet standard performance criteria?

I believe the cause is a lack of cultural identity. Native America has been intentionally omitted from American history. Our students are full of pride and energy when they are very young. Then as they progress through the system, they slowly realize the fact that they and their people are not truly a part of American history and society. Thus, many lose interest in schooling and many quit.

We must revise our current method of “teaching” our language. We need a system that emulates the way our parents and grandparents learned. This must include all cultural traits like food and shelter, language, history, belief system (creation to ceremonies), education (cultural transmission method), security and protection system (tiospaye), relationships (courting and kinship system), and government.

Above all else, we must stop “teaching” Lakota language with methods that are suitable to teach the English language simply because it has not worked. Actually, we have implemented every available teaching method and the most innovative educational trend for four decades. What do we have to show for it? Language proficiency and cultural competency have diminished drastically.

Historically, Oceti Sakowin (Seven Fires) culture was targeted for obliteration in the 1800s. Our children were torn away from their parents and home environment and sent long distances to a “school” where their languages and cultures were forbidden. Many were brutally punished for speaking their languages and others died and their parents were unaware of it until much later.

In the 1900s, the federal government gave us back our right to teach our Lakota language in their modern classrooms. At first, this appeared to be a blessing. Unfortunately, things went awry. Today our young people are now speaking Lakota but with a distinct English language and European culture bias. What we have now is a new language that is neither Lakota nor English.


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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.

Copyright permission Native Sun News Today