A meadowlark in Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Photo: Charles Miles
Meadowlarks still speak Lakota, humans don’t anymore
Tuesday, December 22, 2020
Native Sun News Today Columnist

According to Lakota oral tradition, the tasiyagnunpa (meadowlark) speaks Lakota.

The story tells how we became associated with the star nation. One evening two young Lakota women, sitting by a creek, wished they could marry the brightest stars in the sky. Falling asleep, they awoke in a beautiful land and soon learned they were married to star men, as they had wished and were content.

However, they were warned not to dig up the abundant tinpsila (turnip). One of them, with child and craving tinpsila, dug one up. As she ate, she saw the earth below through the hole in the ground, and her tiospaye (extended family) camped by a river. Becoming homesick, she dug up more turnips, braided them, and let herself down through the hole and fell to her death. Her unborn son survived and was raised by a meadowlark who taught him Lakota and named him Wicahpi Hinhpaye (Falling Star).

On any spring or summer day, listening carefully to the meadowlark, a speaker can hear Lakota phrases. Today, our youth are learning the language through dictionaries, notes, and grammar rules. Are we moving toward a written- and read-only language? Imagine a future where people on longer speak the language but pass written Lakota messages to each other.

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

In the late 70s through the 80s, Title VII funding, under the Bilingual Education Act (1965), allowed us to “teach” Lakota language in our local government elementary school. The lack of cultural orientation among the certified teaching staff and administration effectively marginalized our language program. Basically, we taught our students Lakota words to animals, shapes, and numbers, and they learned but could not carry a conversation.

Looking back at that time, I “see” that we reinforced the English language and Euro-American culture. In other words, when we sing “Jingle Bells” in Lakota, we were fortifying the colonist’s assimilation process they began in 1860 (some say it began in 1492).

In a realistic sense, we perpetrated cultural appropriation on ourselves. We taught our youth to speak English using the Lakota language. Shouldn’t we be heeding the advice of Tatanka Iyutaka (Sitting Bull) by keeping the good and discarding the bad? It is time to take a serious look at our language transmission efforts.

Can we admit that we are almost wholly absorbed into the new world order? We have certainly been subjugated as we are struggling to survive on a tiny remnant of a once vast Lakota territory established by treaty with the United States. Claiming cultural distinction is questionable as a tiny handful speak Lakota. Our culture is now distorted, and we proudly call ourselves “Indian” and “Sioux.”

We have entered the 21st century as culturally challenged people. Young people are using other cultural concepts to define Lakota culture. For instance, Turtle Island and Father Sky instead of Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) and Inyan (Stone). The first two originate from an east coast indigenous creation story and the latter originates from our own Otokaheya Kagapi Wicowoyake (First Creation Story).

This confusion is a serious hindrance to any effort to re-learn language and culture, In other words, we have been “teaching” Lakota language through the European worldview. A worldview is a collection of values, stories, and expectations, about the world around us, which infiltrate our every thought and action. Worldview is expressed in ethics, religion, philosophy, scientific beliefs and so on.

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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

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