Lakota Language Revitalization and Its Challenges

In one of my Lakota Language classes, we watched a video from a session at the Lakota Language Revitalization Summit. It was a talk by a man named Peter Hill. Mr. Hill made it his mission to become fluent in Lakota. He came as a teacher to the Pine Ridge reservation. He assumed he would need to know the language to get by in everyday life. He thought if he didn’t know it, he wouldn’t be able to communicate with his students. So he bought Father Beagle’s dictionary and began memorizing words. He thought coming to the reservation without knowing Lakota would be like going to France not knowing any French.

One thing Mr. Hill didn’t realize was the language is in a state of atrophy. Most Lakota, especially of younger generations, are not that familiar with it. A lack of people knowledgeable and willing to teach the language has contributed to this. As have the boarding schools and their attempt to wipe out the language and culture. For generations, some sought to make being Lakota something to be ashamed of. Any attempt at culture revitalization has to first leap over these hurdles the past has laid for it.

Yet even though the situation wasn’t as he envisioned, Mr. Hill still thought if he was among a people he should make an effort to learn their language. So he put much time and effort toward this goal. He would make tapes of himself speaking. He tried to associate with people among whom the language is still spoken He would transcribe the Lakota language hour on KILI then go about trying to understand it. He read the Lakota dictionary several times through. All these tasks he did with the aim and objective of becoming fluent in Lakota. An objective he achieved in about two years time.

Since he gained fluency so quickly, perhaps those of us struggling to regain our language can benefit from Mr. Hill’s method. During his talk Mr. Hill mentioned several strategies toward gaining fluency with the Lakota language.

The first was a word of encouragement to not give up, and to surround yourself with people who are enthusiastic about the language. Language acquisition like any skill acquisition is a stair case of plateaus. A person will advance for awhile, then progress will level out, and it won’t seem like you’re getting any better. Many people call it quits on these plateaus, discouraged by the lack of progress. Yet these plateaus have to be worked through. Having friends who share the goal of learning the language will help, because it can become a collaborative effort. You can encourage each other through the times of frustration.

The second was to be around traditional people among whom the language is spoken. As in all languages, there is a difference between formal and common speech. If Lakota language is only learned academically, a person will only know the formal side. Languages in a classroom and languages in the everyday are somewhat like animals caged in a zoo and animals as they are in the wild. One is under a lot of careful control, where the other is open ended, and without rigid structure.

The third was constant practice. Mr. Hill spent many hours practicing. He said he fell asleep with his Lakota dictionary next to him quite often. In the car he’d listen to Lakota tapes. He’d recite Lakota words in his spare time. Gaining fluency was a goal he constantly kept climbing toward. Becoming fluent requires a directed sort of diligence like this.

Finally, Mr. Hill ended his speech hypothesizing why the Lakota religion has seen a renaissance in the last few years but the language hasn’t been similarly revitalized. He couldn’t come up with an answer. He said some of his students mentioned language acquisition is difficult But then other students pointed out that sun dancing is difficult too. His best speculation was that the modern world Lakota’s find themselves in is an English speaking world. This English speaking world is where they’ll have to make their success, and to many youth, the language doesn’t seem relevant to where they’re going.

The big themes that struck me from Peter Hill’s presentation were the importance of perseverance and immersion in language acquisition.

As an outsider to the reservation, Mr. Hill shows an enthusiasm for the language perhaps some of us could learn from. Put bluntly, I don’t know many Lakotas who could say they fell asleep with the Lakota dictionary next to them because they desired to be fluent so badly. That dedication and interest is something I see lacking. Maybe Mr. Hill’s speculation that the language doesn’t seem relevant is correct. It is hard when a person has to walk in the modern world, to keep a foot in their traditional roots. How to go forward, while keeping a hold of the past, is a dilemma long struggled with among indigenous cultures. My own sense is that an interest exists among those who aren’t fluent. Yet there’s not many teachers for these would be students. Even if a person had a zeal for the language I’m not sure who they could go to, where they could begin.

Immersion also seems crucial to language acquisition. Being around where the language is spoken, and around people who speak it is necessary. If you’re always in environments that marginalize the language, where it remains a scarcely used, secondary thing, it will always probably remain a secondary language to you. “Get a mentor, someone you know that can teach the language to you” learners are told. Good advice. Yet I think sometimes it is overestimated just how many of the youth actually have access to people who speak the language. Such people who will take time out of their day to speak Lakota with a learner can be hard to come by. Perhaps as the language is taught more in the schools, and other traditional gatherings and dances are resuscitated, that every day usage of Lakota will become more common. Perhaps spaces will begin to emerge where a person can learn by immersion.

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