GRAND FORKS — Laurel Vermillion never learned her native language at a young age.
She grew up on the South Dakota side of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and her parents didn’t teach her Lakota/Dakota, which are two dialects of the same language.
Vermillion recalled her mom once explained why: “We were punished harshly for speaking our language, and we would get hit on the hands with rulers. We thought this was going to be the non-Native world. This was going to be the white man’s world, so we’re not going to really need our language.”
“Isn’t that sad?” Vermillion said. “But that’s reality. I don’t know my language. I don’t blame my parents because they did what they thought was right at that time.”
Now at age 64, Vermillion said she’s too old to grasp full fluency, but that’s not stopping her from helping the next generation of speakers to learn. Now as the president of Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota, Vermillion said the Lakota people are making headway in revitalizing the language.
Through summer learning institutes, immersive language schools, new online resources and a growing interest among young Lakota and Dakota people, the language may be able to survive colonization and decades of federal assimilation policies.
The Bloomington, Indiana-based Lakota Language Consortium has helped set up three-week Lakota/Dakota language institutes across the Dakotas at the University of South Dakota, Sitting Bull College, and for the first time this summer, at the University of North Dakota.
The UND institute in Grand Forks that started early this month attracted both Native and non-Native students who could enroll in beginner, intermediate or teacher-level courses, according to Wil Meya, the executive director of the Lakota Language Consortium.
Meya said there is a “real urgency in the teaching of the Lakota language,” in part because the average age of fluent speakers is 65. Meya, who is also the chief executive officer of the Language Conservancy, a group dedicated to language preservation and revitalization, said the world used to boast 1.6 million languages, but in the last 50 years, 90 percent of those languages have become endangered or extinct, especially in the United States, Canada and Australia.
For Lakota, he said, the number of fluent speakers has been “in free fall” for the last 60 years as geopolitical factors like the end of World War II as well as the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 created a “perfect storm of issues” that affected indigenous languages.
Prior to that, the U.S. government adopted an Indian Boarding School Policy beginning in the mid-19th century, in which hundreds of thousands of indigenous children across the country were removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools operated by the federal government and churches, according to the Minneapolis-based National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
Now, Lakota has just 1,500 speakers left, Meya said, and the ability to revitalize the language depends on the next generation.
“It really depends on them,” he said. “We try to encourage as many young people as possible to begin taking that on as part of their identity and part of their way of moving forward. Become a language warrior; fight for your language; try to preserve it.”
Thirty-seven-year-old Chad Ward of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Nation attended the institute in Grand Forks to start his journey to become a Lakota language teacher.
The Lakota language “is a big part of who you are,” said Ward, who is also the Native American liaison in the Grand Forks Public Schools. “If there’s no language, do you have a civilization?”
Vermillion said that was part of the ploy in the government’s efforts to push indigenous people off reservations and assimilate them. "We'll just kill the language and then they can't be a tribe anymore," Vermillion said.
If the language ceased to exist, the tribe would, too, she said.
Meya said the Lakota language is one of the contenders for surviving extinction as young people seek to learn and tribal schools teach the language.
For the consortium’s part, the group now publishes more than 100 items in Lakota, from phone apps to dictionaries, so “there’s no excuse not to learn Lakota anymore,” Meya said.
The consortium also uses the Standard Lakota Orthography, better known as SLO, which gives learners a way to write and read the historically oral language. SLO uses what’s known as diacritical markers, or accents, that go on various letters to show how to pronounce or correctly emphasize a word.
“Without those diacritics, you may be inadvertently pronouncing words in an English way,” Meya said. “We want to make sure that both students and learners are able to preserve the integrity of the language and the accuracy of the language for generations to come.”
Dakota Goodhouse, a Native American studies professor at United Tribes Technical College and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, said SLO is a powerful tool because second-language learners can read, interpret and speak words the first time correctly.
But he said the language, which is descriptive by nature, used to be written in pictographs, instead of letters. And he pointed out that there are some words in the consortium’s dictionary that aren’t the same as in his tradition. For example, the dictionary’s word for the “solar eclipse” translates to “to cast shadow upon,” but Goodhouse found an 1868 calendar that dubbed a solar eclipse “cloud on fire.”
He added that traditionally, first-language speakers learned Lakota at their mother’s table.
“That’s how it should be,” he said. “Everyone should learn at their mother’s table in their mother’s home.” But for second-language learners who have a family history of being sent off to boarding schools, that wasn’t always an option, he said.
Laurel Vermillion said she’s supportive of people learning the language in all different ways and doing anything to help people learn.
Her granddaughter was enrolled at the language immersion nest in Standing Rock, in which teachers speak only in Lakota throughout the day to students as young as two-and-a-half years old.
Vermillion said her granddaughter is already becoming the better Lakota speaker, and one day, she even offered to say the meal prayer in Lakota.
“I was in tears because I don’t know my beautiful language,” Vermillion said. “I thought if my mom and dad could see her — their great-granddaughter speaking the language — they would be so happy.”