A Dying Language

No one is really sure who to blame. Tribal elders were trained not to speak their native language in Catholic boarding schools, under the threat of severe punishment, and that fear followed them through the years. They never taught their children the language, so the language of the Lakota Sioux Indian Tribe of North and South Dakota is nearly extinct.

Those boarding schools put great effort into the “Americanization” of Native Americans in the late 1800’s, and were still in existence in the 1990’s. The schools were started by the American government and were often run by missionaries. The schools would not allow the children to practice their religion or speak their Lakota language, and the tribe has growing concerns that it could soon be lost forever.

Weighed against the many problems faced by the Lakota reservations, continuation of the language might pale in comparison. Extreme poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and suicide are the top competitors for attention, with preservation of the language coming in far behind the rest. Unfortunately, none of the problems receive the attention they need, least of all, language.

The responsibility to continue the language could fall in various places, and people have varying opinions of where that should be. It is taught in some reservations schools, but tribal elders complain that the teachers are not fluent and do not teach proper pronunciation. Many agree that the language should be taught in the home, but of the reservation population, only 5-15% of the people could be considered fluent. Many of the people currently raising children do not know the language themselves, so if there are no grandparents living in the home, it is likely that no one speaks it well enough to teach it.

There are hopes that the younger generation will make the effort to find a way to learn the language on their own, and some do, but it is hard when there are so few people who speak it well. Some learned as children, but the habit to speak it was never reinforced, so they lost the skill over the years and no longer feel confident to speak or teach it.

Lakota is currently one of the last major Native American language hold-outs in what is a worldwide crisis of linguistic extinctions. The hope of the tribe is that this generation will understand the importance of the language, and begin to see it as a cultural heirloom, something to be treasured and protected for generations to come, and that young and old can work together to save the language from dying out completely.

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