By REGINA GARCIA CANO
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - A documentary that chronicles efforts on reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota to save the language of the Lakota people is set to premiere on public television stations nationwide in November.
The 55-minute film “Rising Voices” highlights how classroom instruction and immersion preschools, dictionaries, voice recordings and animated cartoons are being used to preserve the Lakota language, which is estimated to be spoken by fewer than 6,000 people - less than 14 percent of the Lakota population in North and South Dakota - with an average age that will soon reach 70.
In the documentary, a wide range of Lakota people and some non-Native Americans who have learned the language share the successes and challenges they’ve faced in furthering the reach of the tongue.
“The Lakota are the most iconic of American Indians,” said producer Larry Hott. “They are the ones that Hollywood thinks of; the Lakota have the headdresses, and the buffalo, and the teepee, and Sitting Bull. So, in the American imagination, this is what an American Indian looks like.
“This is a community that’s very famous, that’s iconic, that’s actually known around the world, and here you have a language that was once spoken by many, many more thousands than those who speak it now. There’s only 6,000 speakers left. That creates a race against time.”
The film addresses what is now seen as a dark moment in federal education mandates: the assimilation policy that forced Native American children into boarding schools, where students were forced to speak English and were punished when they were caught speaking in their native tongues. The policy inherently limited or erased the Lakota fluency of some Native Americans who later were unable or refused to teach it to their children and the children of their children.
“I wasn’t able to speak Lakota to my own children because I was afraid for them and what shame they would have to go through,” Philomine Lakota said in the film, her voice cracking. “I was afraid that they would be rejected in their education system and go through the punishments that I went through.”
A Lakota immersion program in Fort Yates, North Dakota, highlighted by the documentary had 11 children between the ages of 3 and 5 when the film crew visited. Enrolled students traveled from Bismarck and other areas, some making a two-hour round trip every day.
In another effort, a basketball coach tells how he began to incorporate Lakota words during practices for shoot, pass, dribble, miss and rebound.
Philomine Lakota is now a Lakota teacher at Red Cloud Indian High School in Pine Ridge, where students take daily classes in Lakota and she encourages them to fight for the “biggest battle of their lives,” which she believes is the one to preserve their language.
“There are days when we have real good days and they just start speaking Lakota on their own, and my heart swells with pride, and I say we have hope, we have hope, I have hope, I have hope, they are doing it and I don’t want to break their momentum,” she said. “Those are rare.”