History of Indigenous Peoples

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Sioux language at Stanford

Lyn Dearborn (lyn@anchor.esd.sgi.com)
Wed, 3 Mar 1993 12:11:07 -0800

Reprinted without permission from the San Jose Mercury News, 3/2/92
Written by Barbara Koh, Staff Writer


Calvin Fast wolf is on a crusade to spread his Sioux language under
the red-tile roofs of Stanford University.

"Dances With Wolves" introduced millions to the rippling sound of
Lakota, but the five students in Fast Wolf's intermediate Lakota
class are well past the introduction. They huddle around a table in
a closet of a room, fussing over the six variants of "to come" and
"to go" and the permutations for coming and going home.

One of them, half-German and half-Sioux Kaydee Culbertson, asked
Stanford to organize the class so she could talk with her grandmother
and other relatives. Now when she speaks Lakota, they explode into
delighted laughter and be her to repeat herself.

Her father understands but cannot speak the dialect -- something she
wants to make up for. Her dad's generation "lost it," she said.

"Unless you can speak your own language, you're lost," says Fast
Wolf, a harsh critic of those who can't.

Lakota is the second-largest Indian language after Navajo. One of
three Sioux dialects, it is spoken fluently by about 18,000 of the
59,000 Lakota Sioux. Most of the fluent speakers are older than 40,
Fast Wolf said.

But among younger Indians, Lakota and other Indian languages have had
a gradual resurgence, one that's spreading from the reservations and
tribal-run colleges in the Midwest to mainstream campuses, several
experts say.

Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley are the only Bay
Area universities offering Indian language classes, a result of
student interest and luck in finding teachers.

Fast Wolf was raised on his grandparents' Lakota, on a South Dakota
reservation. His grandmother, at age 12, survived the 1890 Wounded
Knee massacre by fleeing seven miles with her younger brother and
hiding in a badger hole for a few days. The rest of her family was


Not surprisingly, Grandmother banned English from her home. She
understood English, "but she'd never deign to speak it," Fast Wolf

Young Fast Wolf learned English at the federal boarding school on the
reservation. His teachers, most of them white, did not chide him for
speaking Lakota. But several of his classmates were ashamed to speak
their mother tongue, he said.

"Half-breeds," Fast Wolf calls them. People who can't speak their
language, "people that are half up here," he says in his bass voice,
tapping a finger to the side of his head.

Indian studies programs at many colleges have been led by
"half-breeds" who "had to learn (their culture) second- and
third-hand from whatever a white anthropologist wrote," he said.
Television continues to divert Indians from learning their language
and culture, he added.

Drawing students into Indian language classes today is "a pride in
their own Indian-ness," said Wayne Cadotte, executive director of the
American Indian Center in San Jose. In the past decade, he said,
Indians have been more "fed up with (the treatment of) the Indians as

In being able to say you're Lakota, you should be able to speak your
language," Cadotte said.


Much of Indian cultures is rooted in language, said Laura Williams of
the Native American Center for Indian Education at Arizona State
University in Tempe. She noted that many tribal-run colleges offer
language courses.

"It's oral tradition -- that's how they teach morals to children,"
Williams said. "If you don't know the language, you're not learning
from your elders."

But not just Indians are enrolling. Most of the 25 students in
Berkeley's beginning Lakota course this term are not Indian.

At Stanford, junior Adam Gould is a classic liberal arts case, unsure
what to do with his Native American studies major, "trying to avoid
law school" and in the meantime, enjoying Lakota. The language can
be unwieldy, he says, as it cobbles together morphemes, the smallest
meaningful unit in a language, and sticks subjects and pronouns
inside verbs.

When one comes home, it's "glicu"*; when one sets out, "ku" on the
way and "gli" upon arrival. "Mani" is 'to walk,' "Mawani" is 'I
walk,' "mayani" is 'you walk' and "mayanipi is 'you all walk.'

There isn't a Berlitz guide, or many other learning materials.
Lakota, originally just oral, was Romanized (?) by missionaries in
the late 1800s. Fast Wolf's students rely on a 30,000-word
Lakota-English dictionary, last updated in 1970 by Catholic priests,
and a 1976 workbook from the University of Colorado in which they
find a mistake every few pages.


They also go to movies such as "Thunderheart," a portrayal of
modern-day reservation life.

English major Peggy Dunn, from Oklahoma, inherited a passion for
languages from her linguist father. She knows French and Italian,
but Lakota helps her escape "the mindset of English and Western
European languages" and better understand literature by or about
Indians, she says.

Stanford has offered Cherokee, Navajo and Tlingit, a southern Alaska
tribal language, since 1972, and Berkeley has had Hopi and Lakota --
ad hoc classes largely initiated by students -- administrators say.

The courses also depend on good fortune: "It just so happened there
were more people interested in Lakota (this year) than previously,
and the fact we were able to find someone who's actually a Lakota
scholar, who had experience teaching languages, made it perfect,"
said linguistics Professor Will Leben, faculty coordinator of
Stanford's Special Language Program.


Fast Wolf, also a home health care worker in San Francisco, taught
introductory Lakota to about a dozen Stanford students in the fall.
He is translating the ethnographic stories of George Buschotter, an
1880s Lakota Sioux, and he advised on a program developed by
International Business Machines Corp. on "Black Elk Speaks" for high

"Immerse yourself totally in your own language and you'll get culture
as a byproduct," he says. "The soul and culture of a people are
reflected in their language."

"Dances with Wolves" aroused interest in Indians' cultures, yet was
"an apologia for all white people," Fast Wolf said. "There were no
Dunbars in those days," he declared, referring to Kevin Costner's
Union Army soldier who learns about and defends the Sioux.

Fast Wolf recalls watching the epic movie, amused. "They couldn't
speak that well. They weren't taught very well," he said of the
non-Lakotas' Lakota.

He'd give Costner a C.

* accent marks/keys over the Lakota words unavailable on this system.


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