Editor’s Note: This is the first is our occasional series exploring the lives of those elders, culture-bearers and native-speakers lost to COVID-19.
Paulette High Elk’s passion for the Lakota language shaped her perception of the world, her spiritual landscape, and her commitment to teach others.
Paulette was a renowned teacher, author, and advocate of the Lakota language. She felt passionately that preservation of the Lakota language is essential in order to teach young people the culture and traditions they need in order to survive.
Paulette’s sister LaVae Red Horse remembers that she was always fighting for the Lakota language. She always noticed when other languages died. Paulette would say things like, “They lost their language today. Their only fluent speaker passed away. The don’t have any more fluent speakers. They don’t know their culture. They don’t know their traditions. So we need to keep this going. We need to keep talking. We need to keep telling everybody how to live as a Lakota.”
Paulette felt that preservation and teaching of the Lakota language to young people gives them what they need to survive. Paulette intuitively knew that young people need the support of knowing their native culture; what the expectations are as a woman and as a man, as a boy and as a girl, as a grandma and a grandma, as an unci and a lala, as an uncle and auntie, as a lekší and a tȟunwín. According to LaVae, “She said we all have roles in our way of life and in our family structure.”
LaVae says Paulette couldn’t stop advocating for everyone to teach the breadth of Lakota culture. She’d tell people, “Teach your little ones, teach your takójas our Lakota way of life and our language and our tradition and our culture and our religion. Teach them so that they’ll have something to fall back on.”
Paulette’s early training and a nurse and her vocation as a teacher both came from her unstoppable drive to give people the resources they need to survive. Her sister Mildred Carpenter explained how being able to think in English and in Lakota is essential to survival in order to navigate the rules and protocols of discrimination.
Mildred explained, “They have laws and rules and stuff. We have our laws, our rules, our teachings that are different from when we get off the reservation — because we’re not around our native people that understand us. We’re in another culture. Some people are involved in culture shock because of how we’re treated off the reservation in stores and gas stations and stuff. We thought that was over years ago but it’s still [happening] today.”
Paulette’s friend Beth Lone Eagle says “strong” isn’t even a strong enough word to describe Paulette. “She’s always been a really tough, tough woman, not in the sense of meanness but in the sense of what she can handle. She was really strong. She could handle all kinds of stuff. And at the same time, she was really an amazing woman.”
Paulette’s drive to teach took a humorous path sometimes. She threw huge Christmas parties with appetizers and punch and Lakota games and stories. Everyone had a gift. LaVae says, “We’d walk into her house and she’s playing all this Christmas music. And then when a game started, she would say, ‘I was playing this song when you guys first came in and all the answers are in that song.’”
Mildred, 71, Paulette, 64, and LaVae, 58, come from a family of five girls where everyone is driven to make a difference. Mildred is a lifetime minister. Their sister Cody is a credit officer but also a fancy shawl dancer and maker of regalia who taught her granddaughter to be fancy shawl dancer as well.
Even though Mildred is the oldest, because she lives in Montana, Paulette filled that role. LaVae didn’t realize how much she depended on Paulette until she left. She always assumed Paulette was going to be there forever and that she was never going to leave them.
Mildred said, “She’s the one that stepped in after Mom had gone on and my younger sisters there, they depended on her. Everybody went to her for their names. To get an Indian name you have to do a ceremony and all this stuff, and she knew everything, everything! The other day I had a question I was going to ask her and I remembered she was wasn’t there.”
There are eight siblings in the family altogether; the five sisters, an adopted brother and two adopted sisters. Their family grew up in Thunder Butte. The siblings in the High Elk family are Mildred Carpenter, Paulette High Elk, Lois High Elk, LaVae Red Horse, Codi High Elk, Carlos Red Legs, Ruby Takes the Gun, Carol Elk Nation and Hunka siblings Consuelo Guillory, Judy Houston, Lyndon Old Elk, Porgy Old Elk.