Pine Ridge reservation works to save Lakota language

By Kayla Gahagan
Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota (AP) April 2010

Skin has gathered at the corners of her eyes into soft brown wrinkles, and the tattoos on her forearms have faded into an inky blue. Bernice Spotted Eagle rests on a couch in her three-bedroom house, her feet protected from cold linoleum floors by red slippers. The house is warmed by space heaters, one of which almost burned the house down. But it is this house, she says as she gestures with small hands, that used to be so packed with relatives and friends, sleeping bags littering the floor every night.

Her house, a safe haven she fervently defends as alcohol- and drug-free, is in the middle of a cul-de-sac of tribal housing. It is with this view that Spotted Eagle says she can most clearly see the roadblocks that stand in the way of breathing life back into her native Lakota language.

Graffiti sprayed on a nearby house leaves a chilling reminder that the Crips and the Bloods frequent the area. A neighbor was stabbed to death in an argument recently

People often stop by to ask for money or food.

She keeps the front door locked.

The Pine Ridge Indian reservation, a 3,500-square-mile plot of land home to the largest concentration of Lakota people, is also home to the effort to save the indigenous Lakota language from extinction.

The odds are stacked against them.

A 2005 study done by Colorado State University, and accepted by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, estimates the population at about 29,000. But Pine Ridge Tribal Enrollments puts that number closer to 20,000.

Experts estimate that between 5 percent and 15 percent of enrolled tribal members are fluent speakers, and almost 60 percent of those speakers are 50 and older, according to the Oceti Wakan, a local nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the Lakota language and culture.

The first documented reservation effort to revitalize the language began in 1969. Since then, schools and organizations throughout the reservation have implemented a language curriculum, hired part-time teachers and called on elders to share what they know. But not a single fluent speaker has emerged in half a century.

Many elders here blame the language’s downfall on Catholic boarding schools, where they were sent as children. Lakota culture and language were forbidden.

Philomine Lakota, now a Red Cloud Indian School language teacher with wide-set shoulders and a commanding presence in the classroom, attended a boarding school, where speaking the language was akin to rebellion and was promptly followed with punishment.

The sting of a ruler slapped against the back of her hand still burns in her memory, as does gagging and choking while they washed her mouth out with soap.

“Those shameful acts helped kill our language,” she says.

Wilma Thin Elk remembers the same.

“They knocked it out of me,” she says. “I can’t understand why in our time we got hit for speaking our native language, and now, they want us to teach it to them.”

The burden to carry on the language shouldn’t fall to the elders, she says. She tries to teach her grandson, and that’s it.

“I’m stingy with my language,” she says.

But Spotted Eagle, 63, warns of bigger problems than haunting memories. For her, the Lakota people must first try to overcome many things before they can reclaim the language – poverty and drugs, alcohol, violence, suicide and a loss of identity for a younger generation caught between two worlds.

She is not alone in her house. Her boyfriend, grandaughter and two grandsons live with her, and she speaks to them in her native language, the words rolling quickly off her tongue. She talks willingly, but sparingly, about what it would mean to lose the language, the discussion woven in and out of conversation the way her cigarette smoke seeps in and out of her nostrils.

“It makes me very disappointed,” she says. “We should have thought about this a long time ago.”

The elders are right, experts say. But whether it’s the victim of past oppression or a widening gap among generations doesn’t matter. It’s disappearing all the same.

Word by word. Fluent speaker by fluent speaker.

“When an elder dies, it’s like a library burning down, so much is lost,” said Chris Harvey, head of research and development for the Indigenous Language Institute, headquartered in Santa Fe, N.M. “The language will be lost unless drastic action is taken.”

Darrell Kipp, founder of the Piegan Institute on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, agreed with Harvey.

Every language is a library because the people have developed it through their relationship with the land, time and ecology. The Lakota language especially, he said, “is directly reflective of a long-term residency” on the land.

“Every word has a true, deep connection, telling the story, explaining a phenomenon,” he said. “That in itself is important.”

Tina Merdanian, director of institutional relations at Red Cloud Indian School near Pine Ridge, agreed that the loss of the language could be literal in the sense that some Lakota words simply can’t be translated.

Root words have spiritual connections, and translations can strip their meanings. Other words have simply never been translated. There is not a Lakota word for hate, goodbye or pizza. The Lakota people translate soda as “popping water” and banana as “oblong yellow.”

But there is a lot more at stake than the definitions of words. A language is so intimately tied to culture and self-identity that the loss of it is like losing your inner direction, Harvey said.

“That is the true essence of who we are,” Merdanian said. “Being Lakota is not something we do; it’s who we are.”

She understands the frustration of the elders.

“We have the right to acknowledge a lot of wrongs. But we need to move on. The past is the past.”

Harvey said history proves that language is tied to the rise and fall of peoples, citing the Cornish in the United Kingdom as one example.

Kerry Brock, executive director of foundation and corporate relations at Red Cloud, agreed.

“Because language and culture are so intimately related to each other, the death of a language signals the end or beginning of a culture,” she said.

Harvey also said that a tribe looking for federal recognition would be much more convincing of its independence if members could speak their language.

“If you don’t speak your language, you have to prove who you are,” he said. “Your sovereignty is tied to whether you can speak your language.”


And while Natives on and off the reservation still take part in powwows, sun dances and other cultural and spiritual rites, many of them identify closely with the things their ancestors never knew. They dress, talk and live much like their white counterparts. Sometimes what comes out of their mouths is the only thing to set them apart.

“Language has become the predominant symbol of Indian identification in the modern world,” said Doug Parks, co-director of the American Indian Studies Research Institute at Indiana University.

Cindy Catch, director of the Oceti Wakan, said 41 percent of almost 9,000 households surveyed in 2007 reported having one Lakota speaker in it, which is hopeful.

“A culture is kept by the language in the deepest sense,” she said. “It formulates how one sees the world.”

Parks and Ray DeMallie of the American Indian Research Institute find it hopeful, especially compared with other languages that have met their end. The two started working on the Assiniboine language in 1985 at Fort Belknap in Montana. There were 20 to 30 people who spoke it, and that dwindled to four or five.

“In another five years, you’re going to have no speakers,” Parks said.

The Pawnee and Arikara in North Dakota face the same extinction. In 1965, 250 fluent speakers of Pawnee were alive. Four years ago, the last speaker died.

“This is a really critical and urgent matter,” Parks said. “The politicians and administration say, ‘We’ll get to it someday.”’

Catch said everyone should care about the preservation of other languages and cultures.

“We, as humans, are so much alike in so many ways, and part of the gifts that we have to share with humanity is our unique culture that we have been born in,” she said. “When we lose a culture, the whole world loses.”

The word for child in Lakota is “wakahyeja” or sacred being. If the younger generation could speak the language, it would change the way many of them feel about themselves, she said.

Her organization encourages fluent speakers to only speak Lakota to their children.

Besides the bad memories of their youth, many elders say the unrelenting burden of living in poverty overwhelms the need to pass down the language.

The reservation is cornered in the southwest part of the state and lies within Shannon and Jackson counties, two of the poorest in the U.S.

Scattered among sunflower fields and skies so open and blue they seem to swallow the land, reminders of the poverty sprout up like the sturdy mullein stalks lining the riverbanks. Stray dogs wander the countryside, scrounging for food and scratching flea-ridden bodies. Trash blows from one community to the next, a sign of a lack of infrastructure in communities that rely heavily on tribal assistance for support. Abandoned vehicles rest on muddy roads, now nothing more than metal skeletons rusting in the dirt.

Mildred Alkrie, a Manderson elder who speaks fluent Lakota, talks about the reservation with pride and disdain.

“I hit that Wounded Knee hill and I’m home, free at last,” she said. “We look out for each other.”

It’s home, and it’s hard.

“It’s paradise, with no civilization, no laws,” she says, tossing a thick black braid of hair behind her shoulder.

Alkrie speaks out on issues of tribal corruption, drugs and alcohol, and works to feed poverty-stricken elderly and the homeless. People feel torn, she said.

“They want to be Indian, but they don’t want to speak the language,” she said.

Carl Broken Leg, Spotted Eagle’s boyfriend, thinks part of the problem is that when the Lakota people were first sent to the reservation, they had to get permission from the federal government to leave it.

“People got attached,” he said. “Our people became like stagnant water; we’re not moving, so it’s like poison.”

Merdanian agreed.

“Generations of our people became self-hating. Why pass that down?” she asks.

Marlon Kelly, a 21-year-old music teacher at Red Cloud last year, said teaching students to sing traditional Lakota songs is an effective way to connect them with the language.

Sweat lodges dot the countryside near homes on the reservation, and thousands of residents of all ages travel each year to powwows and sun dances, where they fast and endure physical and spiritual rites. It is all in jeopardy if the language disappears, Kelly said.

“We would go to church for prayers,” he said. “We wouldn’t have any of that.”

Merdanian is holding out hope that if a comprehensive curriculum is implemented and all generations take ownership of the language, it could be around forever.

“As long as it’s in here,” she says, tapping her heart, “they can never take it away.”

Broken Leg shares the same optimism.

“I’ll be dead and gone by the time it gets turned around, but it will.”

Alkrie believes there will always be Lakota speakers, even if only the people who live in extremely rural areas and who cannot speak English.

“The side that understands the language have been demoted so much they don’t even care,” she said. “They’ll live forever because they live the ways.”

That belief is troublesome, says Mike Carlow, director of the Tusweca Tiospaye, an organization on the reservation dedicated to preserving the language. The organization has hosted two language summits in Rapid City that have drawn thousands of people.

“I think there is a bit of denial,” he said. The language is considered sacred, he said, so some people believe it will never die.

Charles Spotted Thunder is one of those.

“I know there’s a belief we’re losing it, it’s dying,” he said. “It’s not. It’s a re-learning process.”

On a winter day, he stands near the site of Chief Red Cloud’s grave, overlooking the southwestern sweep of the reservation, and pulls his coat up over reddened ears. He retells the story of how Devils Tower came to be, in Lakota.

The words come with ease.

And then they are carried away in the cold wind.