Lakota Language Preservation: A Letter from Father Hatcher
You may remember that wopila is Lakota for thank you. Gratitude plays an important role in the lives of the Lakota people. This image of an angel saying “wopila!” is by a student at the Sapa Un Macadam.
Sapa Un is what the Lakota called the black-robed German Jesuit missionaries who came to the great plains to evangelize Native Americans in the nineteenth century. The Lakota of Rosebud Reservation invited the Jesuits to live among them and educate their children to succeed in a strange new world. We are still here, still doing what we were called to do. Wopila!
I have Lakota on my mind these days because we are seeing a resurgence of the language among the Lakota people. Recently I asked some questions about this of Deacon Ben Black Bear, Jr., director of our Lakota Studies program, and Marie Kills in Sight, director of our Buechel Memorial Lakota Museum.
How many of the 26,000 Lakota on Rosebud Reservation speak Lakota?
About 25 percent, or 6,500 people, are speakers, many of them elderly, but the number of young speakers is growing rapidly.
How are people learning the language?
In many ways. Parents are teaching Lakota words to tots, preschool children are getting bilingual training, children in Black Robe Catholic Academy are exposed to Lakota language and culture every day, the tribe has a Lakota education program, and young adults are taking Lakota in college.
Because language is social by definition, many seek out speakers of Lakota by attending powwows and other gatherings. Working through the Lakota Language Consortium, Deacon Ben has created audio CDs and workbooks for Lakota learners, as well as online resources.
Why is it important for the people of Rosebud to know the Lakota language?
“It’s who we are,” Marie Kills in Sight said. “I speak English in my job all day long, but when I go home I need to loosen up my tongue. So I call my aunt or my cousin and have a long conversation in Lakota. That makes me happy.”
Lakota is this people’s “heart language,” Deacon Ben explained. When people pray the world over, they naturally do it in their own languages. Lakota spirituality is consistent with Christian spirituality in many wonderful ways. We worship the same God.
If you are Lakota, they told me, you think and act in ways that have been handed down to you by our ancestors. If you are Lakota, you won’t understand your own behavior without knowing the Lakota language. The language embodies the rich culture of the Lakota, and the fastest way to understand your culture is to learn the language. In the schools the children are learning words, phrases, stories, prayers, and songs in Lakota. They love it. When it comes right down to it, they said, knowing Lakota gives people of all ages a sense of ancestral pride and self-esteem that helps them become successful in life.
But shouldn’t we be focused on preparing them to succeed off the reservation, especially in college?
That’s exactly what we are doing, they insisted. Students are learning standard curriculum as well as Lakota. Learning Lakota is like learning Spanish, French, or Latin, except it is far more personal for Lakota children. When they go off to college they are bicultural, able to function effectively among their own people and as members of an ethnic minority in both college and career. With a sound understanding of who they are, Lakota youth feel good about themselves, proud of their heritage, and confident of their ability to compete with anyone.
I hope Deacon Ben and Marie help you see why Lakota Studies is an important program of St. Francis Mission Among the Lakota. This people is a unique gift to the Church, the Body of Christ. I am fortunate to be blessed in my own faith by the Lakota. I am blessed to serve them. I understand the word wopila. I am making it my own. Preserving Lakota language and culture is critical to our success as a mission. We must affirm those we serve and welcome them into our community of love. The Church encourages this approach to missionary service, calling it inculturation.
We have needs in our Lakota Studies program—both in the school curriculum and in the museum. You have been a friend to the Mission, so I am grateful to be able to turn to you again. Does God move you to make a gift in support of Lakota language and culture? Thank you for whatever you can do to help us!
In the Risen Lord,
John Hatcher, SJ
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