March 01, 2016

The Fight to Keep the Lakota Language Alive

Seth Abrams

The median age of a Lakota language speaker is higher than the average life expectancy of a Lakota tribesman. Like many other Native American languages, the Lakota language is endangered

However, a newly awarded grant may turn the tide, for the Lakota at least.

The American Indian College Fund (AICF), an education-focused nonprofit, received a $25,000 grant for an immersion program designed to preserve the Lakota language on the Standing Rock Reservation in North and South Dakota.

A concerted focus on language in the upcoming generations is crucial for the preservation of Native culture in American society. Fifty-four Native American languages are already extinct, and another 137 are in danger of being forgotten, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

Teaching Native children the Lakota language and culture during their most crucial developmental years is necessary in preserving the Lakota’s rich history, as the saying goes, “When a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it.”

Studies have shown that fluency in one’s native language is correlated with grounded self-identity as well as improved academic performance, two areas where Native American populations have unduly suffered as a result of the late 19th century boarding school era policy.

 “When a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it.”

Between the late 19th and mid-20th century, federal policy resulted in Native children being forcibly removed from their homes, and placed in boarding schools where they were brutalized emotionally, physically, spiritually and psychologically.

Children were taught to be ashamed of their heritage, and were forbidden to speak their languages and practice their culture.

The boarding school era continues to cause intergenerational trauma, and is a primary reason for why some Native languages are extinct, and others are becoming endangered. The AICF’s efforts represent a victory, and highlights a path that other First Nations should pursue.

The ongoing problems caused by the federal government’s boarding school policy must be addressed through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which will record the stories of those who experienced the boarding schools, release a comprehensive national study into the history of the policy, and provide recommendations to Congress on how to begin a process of healing and reconciliation.

This Commission, similar to dozens of others worldwide, will offer solutions that can bring forth effective redress.

The donation to the AICF comes from the Grotto Foundation, an organization that provides grants for early childhood development and native language initiatives. The AICF will funnel the money into a recently established childhood education and immersion program at Sitting Bull College in Standing Rock.