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How Do You Save A Language Before It Dies?

by Daniel Beauregard

August 9, 2016
A young student studies words in Lakota. (Photo courtesy of Thunder Valley Community Development Center)

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, residents face a host of life-threatening issues: high suicide rates, poverty, crippling diabetes, drug use. Also, like many other marginalized groups around the world, their language is disappearing.

Thankfully, one community group is working to preserve the Lakota language, all while tackling some of the systemic problems facing their community.

According to Cecily Engelhart, a spokeswoman for Thunder Valley CDC, less than three percent of the 40,000 residents on the Pine Ridge reservation speaks fluent Lakota. For the past 10 years, Engelhart said the non-profit organization has been working to improve the Pine Ridge community by providing workforce development opportunities, youth leadership programs, housing opportunities, and a host of other things. Recently, they’ve launched Wóihaŋble, the first ever Lakota-language newspaper.

“The idea behind it is, if people can look at it and read it, they’re also learning,” Engelhart said. “Rather than forcing people into a classroom, why not bring the language to them?”

“In areas where you see language fluency increasing, you see a decrease in drug use; you see a decrease in suicides.”

The paper was created by Lakota language initiative director Matt Rama and language coordinator Peter Hill as a way to increase exposure to the language. Rama, who’s been living in Pine Ridge since 1996, said that they wanted to create something online that wasn’t just an educational tool. The site contains everything from news to sports, as well as in-depth features on Lakota culture and history.

“I was going to MSN.com everyday and I felt like if we wanted to keep people active in the language we needed to create something similar,” Rama said.  

Wóihaŋble is only one aspect of a much larger initiative to revitalize the Lakota language and create fluency among those in the community. Rama said it began with an child immersion program started by Hill and himself. As the immersion program progressed, he said, they began seeing the need for other materials: video teaching tools, books, and online resources for others in the community. Thunder Valley wanted to create a comprehensive approach to learning the language, so they developed a program for second language learners, as well as press that publishes books in Lakota.

“While it was incredible creating first language Lakota speakers, that was only one piece of the issue concerning fluency on the reservation,” Engelhart said.

What’s happening in Pine Ridge isn’t an isolated problem: it’s happening all over the world with indigenous and marginalized cultures and communities. According to the Endangered Languages Project, an online resource funded in part by a grant from the U.S National Science Foundation, there are approximately 167 endangered languages in the Unites States alone, and more than 3,000 worldwide.

“The language is medicine in that way; the language is a way we can kind of sooth and empower ourselves.”

Dr. Willem Adelaar, a Dutch linguist specializing in Native American languages, said many indigenous languages have disappeared more rapidly than is necessary due to unfavorable social conditions, discrimination, or the exercise of direct force.

“The speakers of these languages have not been in a position to continue speaking their ancestral languages as they might have wished,” Adelaar said.

Both Engelhart and Rama echo some of those reasons as to why the Lakota language has faced such difficulty, primarily the trauma their ancestors faced when they were forced to stop speaking it. During the 1960s, the majority of Lakota children were sent to boarding schools where their native language was discouraged.

Engelhart also added that because learning the language is so closely connected with identity, there’s can even a bit of shame that comes with struggling to learn Lakota properly.

“Reclaiming [it] is a source of empowerment, but it’s also making ourselves very vulnerable, because there’s the element of fear that we might not be doing things correctly or the way our ancestors did,” Engelhart said.

The biggest obstacle they face now is trying to revive it, Rama said, which is difficult due to the lack of a solid teaching curriculum.  

“We’re just one small group trying to do a whole lot of things, that’s been our biggest obstacle; it hasn’t really been lack of desire, but just trying to find materials and create the materials that aren’t there,” Rama said.

However, overcoming such obstacles can give Lakota language learners a strong sense of pride. Rama said that life on the Pine Ridge Reservation is hard, but embracing the Lakota language and culture is one of the ways residents, especially the younger generation, can overcome the difficulties they face.

For those at Thunder Valley CDC, preserving and revitalizing their native language is just one of the ways they’re trying to create systemic change within their community.

“In areas where you see language fluency increasing, you see a decrease in drug use; you see a decrease in suicides,” Engelhart said. “The language is medicine in that way; the language is a way we can kind of sooth and empower ourselves.”

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How Do You Save A Language Before It Dies?