RAPID CITY, S.D. - Almost everyone in the large meeting room spoke Lakota as their first language, yet all were concerned that their tongue and culture were fast disappearing. Once one of the most widely used languages in the country, Lakota is at risk of falling the way of hundreds of other indigenous languages.
The Lakota Language Consortium recently held its inaugural meeting to discuss methods of teaching Lakota at the elementary, secondary and college levels and to develop a curriculum for reservation schools.
"This meeting is vital to our future. There will be problems because tribal resources are taking budget cuts," said John Yellow Bird Steele, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. "We disagree among ourselves about how to reach this goal. People from other bands understand the importance of this. We need to help one another."
Steele promised the full cooperation of the tribal council.
The consortium discussed problems such as a lack of qualified teachers, the lack of curriculum and inadequate funding. Three days of meetings uncovered many questions, but the answers may take more time.
Schools that have proven methods to teach the language will be used as role models. Most teachers are elders that volunteer in the schools, but they are becoming more difficult to recruit. Some don't want to teach the language.
Leonard Little Finger, 64, a teacher at Loneman School on the Pine Ridge Reservation said the language could disappear in about 10 years. He said his command of the language is less than some people of a generation older; those speakers are dying off.
With fewer speakers, each generation loses some of the nuance and vocabulary that make up the culture.
The proper language is needed to tell the oral history correctly.
"The creator gave us our tongue and language to talk to the creator. We need to keep that tongue," Little Finger said.
"In 1975, 90 percent of the students at Loneman School spoke Lakota. Now only three percent of the kindergarten students speak the language ? We must revive the language to understand the culture and be able to spread and understand who we are."
Some children are at a disadvantage because Lakota is not spoken in the home. Little Finger believes the goal should be to speak Lakota first and English as a second language in five years. He said it would become easier to understand the non-Indian world and society from the perspective of Lakota values and culture.
One consistent problem in revitalizing a language is agreement on proper pronunciation and word usage.
Technology may offer a solution. The Lakota Language project of the University of Indiana developed computer software to help teach the language by offering variations of a given word.
Will Meya of Indiana University said it is time to take control of the tools of technology; the computer can solve the problems of lacking a standard dictionary because the words may not be the same from one community to another.
"The computer data is here and it can reflect the diversity of all communities. The computer can show all the variations of a word. Use technology to solve a problem and today that can include voices with the word. It will be an audible record for kids to learn," Meya said.
When students were asked what they wanted of a language program, they answered that they wanted to learn more about the language and culture. Students responded that they liked the Lakota Language teachers best because, "they care about us."
Dr. Doug Parks of Indiana University said young people are more focused when working on a computer, a device very familiar to all young people. Young people are also exposed to all types of technology, such as television, computers, cell phones and palm pilots.
Jesse Taken Alive, councilman from the Standing Rock Reservation said that Lakota prophecies say that what had been taken would be returned.
"At one time it was thought only the Pope could speak to the Creator. We must remember we are spirits and we worship all the time. Our language is important. We should do our own curriculum development; we know each of our bands do things differently."
"In Lakota we accept things and then understand them. In today's society we are not understood and not accepted. We see people use our language for money, and we are victims of linguistic racism. It turns people into objects; Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, the Fighting Sioux, for example, it's a form of conquering," Taken Alive said.