The Lakota language has lost one of its most fluent speakers. Johnson Holy Rock, of Wakpamni, South Dakota, walked on January 21 at the age of 93.
Holy Rock was one of the founders of the Lakota Language Consortium. He served on its board of directors from 2004 to 2008.
“His leadership regarding the Lakota language was very influential as he was one of the most fluent Lakota speakers surviving into the 21st century,” says an entry about Holy Rock posted on LakotaDictionary.org. “His decisions and recommendations significantly shaped the Lakota Language Consortium’s policies, products and services. Johnson strongly believed in the need for a standardized spelling system and curriculum, and always promoted it.”
Johnson recorded his life story in Lakota. In it he talks about Lakota being his first language and how he didn’t go to school until he was 8. He spoke English fluently by then though. He was taught by older sisters.
“His language skills and eloquence in both Lakota and English showed that he was a man of high intelligence and sophistication,” says LakotaDictionary.org.
Holy Rock was also a World War II veteran and served as the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe from 1966 to 1968. Before that time he met U.S. President John F. Kennedy in the White House to try and improve housing on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The website GoNativeAmerica.com calls Holy Rock “one of the most respected elders in Indian country.” It also says that his grandfathers, Holy Bald Eagle and Holy Bull, traveled with Crazy Horse and that his father was at Little Bighorn.
“Johnson's father, Jonas, was 11 years old when George A. Custer and the 7th Cavalry attacked the Lakota-Cheyenne encampment at the Little Bighorn.”
The Rapid City Journal recently posted a 2001 interview in which Holy Rock talks about his father, who was at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Listen here.
Holy Rock was recorded telling his life story in Lakota in 2005. Listen here.
Holy Rock also took part in a 90-minute documentary about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “A Thunder-Being Nation” tells the story of the Lakota from their origin to where they are now. It was shot over 11 years from Pine Ridge and includes topics like Wounded Knee, boarding schools, the Gold Rush, forced sterilization, education, and racism. A clip about poor housing conditions can be seen below: