Friday, August 14, 2020


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This is how I picture itFree Access

Language unites us, divides us

10 years ago at this time, I was in my third week of a three-week study abroad adventure that took me to West Africa. I can’t fathom that a decade has passed since that once in life opportunity took me thousands of miles across the world into a whole other world.

I was one of 30 individuals that had made the trip with a travel class that was offered at South Dakota State University. The trip was made possible through a scholarship program that I was on that allowed for this opportunity.

The experiences there were an eye opener to the reality of the world outside the United States, where severe poverty encompasses a majority of the population. Growing up on the reservation, I have experienced poverty, but our poverty and theirs is night and day.

By American standards, I was a broke college student that had only a few hundred extra dollars of travel money. By African standards, that few hundred dollars was more than someone would see in a full year.

We arrived in Ghana after nearly 20 hours in the air. The first flight was a 4,000-mile overnighter from Chicago to Frankfort, Germany. Our arrival into Germany was delayed, which then called for a mad dash through the Frankfort Airport, first having to go through customs then to our gate. After reaching our gate with just moments to spare, we were on our way to Africa on another 3,000-mile flight, which took us over the Mediterranean Sea where we soon could see the northern coast of Africa; I believe we were over Libya.

Our journey began in the English speaking country of Ghana, where after an evening of rest we were on the road at five the next morning, taking us out of Ghana and the comfort zone of a known language into the French speaking neighboring countries of Togo and Benin. There were a couple of French speakers among us but the majority of conversations were lost without translation. It didn’t take long before we started picking up phrases.

Our drivers were from Ghana and didn’t speak French. However, in the region, they all spoke their native language and even though borders separated us, they were able to communicate with others two countries over. There language in a sense was similar to Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota, in that they had different dialects.

It came in handy one day as we were traveling through Benin and came across a protest in a heavily forested area. People were walking the width of the road and carrying signs and banners, however they all were in French, so none of us knew what was going on. We got further into the forest about a mile and there was a larger group who had cut down some trees and blocked the road forcing us to stop.  We were the second car to arrive just behind the first car and the protestors had swarmed the first car and were shaking it back and forth and hitting it with sticks, all the while they were shouting in French.

There had been a travel advisory for Americans not to travel to Nigeria as there had been groups of Americans kidnapped in the days before. At that point, we were less than 10 miles from the Nigerian border so with four Americans in the car, we were a bit worried as we couldn’t understand anything that was going on other than there was a very angry crowd.

Just after we came to a stop, the crowd had made their way to our car and for a few moments it got a bit dicey. Well once they saw us, they yelled Americans and waved off the crowd as they turned their attention to the next cars behind us. We all took a collective deep breath and at this point, our driver got out to see if he could figure out what was going on.  He was gone for a short while and came back and said he was able to talk to someone in his native language and explained that it was different in dialect but he was able to understand. It turns out the protestors were all inhabitants of the forest and the government was forcing them from their forest homes to clear cut the forest and make way for development, sound familiar?

It was an eye opening experience. So many of those countries had been colonized by European countries, and although now independent of European rule, the official language of those countries was still that of the colonizing country, whether it was English, French, Belgium, or German.

Despite the country’s official language the vast majority of the people still held on to their native language, which was good to see.

I wish growing up I would’ve been surrounded more with the Lakota language. I remember in third grade back in the mid 80’s Dana Dupris would come into our class and we would have Lakota lessons. We learned the basics, numbers, parts of our body, and names of animals. That has always stuck with me; I just wish that it could’ve been more. At that younger age, we are able to learn a lot better. Lakota wasn’t spoken too much at home, though my grandma could speak to others in Lakota or she’d get after us in Lakota.

It’s been told all across the country, that indigenous speakers are slowly disappearing. It’s happening here as well. The Lakota language needs to survive and tribal officials need to legislate and take a stronger approach to getting Lakota taught to the children. With the passage of Ordinance 66 in the 1990’s, the CRST tribal council took a big step to ensure this. But more needs to happen.

I take my hat off to the teachers who are teaching it but a stronger curriculum needs to be established. This is one area that tribal lawmakers and the educators need to come together and put aside differences and accusations and build a strong Lakota Language curriculum to be taught in the schools and also for the development of Lakota Immersion schools.  I know there is talk of one in the works and that is good, but it needs to become a reality.

I had the opportunity to visit the Kahnawake Mohawk Reserve south of Montreal Quebec in 2001. There they have an amazing immersion school program that starts teaching language and culture at the kindergarten age. Mohawk is the only language spoken in the school at all times. In Quebec, the official language is French, although a lot of people there do speak English as well. There are students from the Mohawk nation who graduate and are trilingual, speaking Mohawk as well as English and French.

With a lot of effort, it can be done here. Cheyenne River graduates can be fluent in more than one language. The “official” language of English and native Lakota. Anyway, that’s how I picture it.

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