A website published in Lakota is the newest part of an effort to revitalize that Native American language for residents of the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and beyond.
Wóihaŋble, which means “dream” in Lakota, started publication earlier this year. The site features local news, weather, sports, and cultural pieces. All the material is published in Lakota, making the site one of a kind.
Wóihaŋble comes out of the Lakȟótiyapi Press, the media component of the Lakota Language Initiative at Thunder Valley Community Development Corp. Thunder Valley CDC is an Oglala Lakota-run nonprofit organization with headquarters in Porcupine, South Dakota. The Lakota Language Initiative seeks to preserve Lakota and make it relevant and useful in contemporary settings, said Peter Hill, who edits Wóihaŋble.
“We’ve tried to expand our language programs in ways that will enable us to reach people outside of the walls of this program, so that they can also learn the language in their own time, without having to be here on site,” Hill said. “One of the primary ways to do that nowadays is with technology.”
The Lakota Language Initiative has other web sites for instruction, but Wóihaŋble is the first one exclusively focused on sharing news and information.
“One desire was to do something that’s not just using the language to teach the language, but actually showing the language being used in a real world context,” Hill said.
Hill said he isn’t sure how many of the 2,000 Lakota speakers use the site. He said it’s probably a challenging read for a new Lakota student. But Wóihaŋble demonstrates that Lakota can work in a contemporary setting, he said.
Each text story is accompanied by an audio version. That serves both fluent Lakota speakers, who may be less comfortable with the written language, and new learners, Hill said.
Most stories are translations of articles that run in the two English-language weekly newspapers that serve the area. Hill writes and compiles some of the other features like “this day in history” and the weather report.
Putting Lakota online is part of a strategy to get younger people interested in the language, Hill said. The average age of the people who speak Lakota is nearly 70. There are very few speakers younger than 45. That puts the language at risk because few children learn Lakota from their parents.
Hill got interested in Lakota after moving to the area as an adult. He says it took him about seven years to become “passably fluent.”
“It took way too long,” he said.
In the past, children would learn Lakota from family members in their homes. But few children have that opportunity now. That got Hill and others looking for better ways to keep the language alive. They started with another strong cultural tradition – basketball.
“We translated all the basketball terminology into Lakota, both the coach’s calls and the practice drills, so that [the coach] could really use the language in practice and from the sidelines,” Hill said.
Then Hill started announcing the games in Lakota, as part of a strategy to put the language into every day settings and reach more people.
When someone was going to the line to shoot free throws, fans heard “núŋpa iyútȟekhiyápi kte.” If the score was tied, “ákhiyenakča iglámnapi.” A blocked shot, “kíčaȟpapi.”
“A basketball game is going to get several hundred people to turn out, while having a language learning workshop might only get a couple dozen people,” Hill said.
The basketball coach at the time, Matthew Rama, went on to become director of the Lakota Language Initiative. The initiative includes Lakȟótiyapi Press and a Lakota Immersion Childcare Program, which draws staff from a Second Language Learners Program. Next year, the Red Cloud Indian School will offer a Lakota immersion track in the elementary school for graduates of the daycare program. And all of Thunder Valley’ CDC’s 30-plus employees take three hours of Lakota instruction each week, according to Cecily R. Engelhart, communications director of Thunder Valley CDC.
Hill said he sees revitalizing the language as a fundamental part of larger efforts to enliven Lakota culture.
“It’s great that nowadays everybody goes to sweat and sun dances, but I don’t think those people want to eventually live in a world where all of those things only happen in English,” he said. “And that the Lakota language that was at the fundamental core of the cultural activities and the spirituality and the kinship has been replaced by the colonizers’ language.”
Keeping the language relevant also means creating new words – or neologisms – that keep Lakota up to date, Hill said. For example, the traditional language had no word for giraffe, so “tȟahú háŋska” (which means literally “long neck”) has been coined. Similarly, the Lakota word for octopus, “istó šaglóǧaŋ,” literally means “eight arms.”
The key to neologisms is to keep them short and sweet, Hill said.
“People just by nature speak language efficiently. We see it even in the fluent speakers, that if the Lakota version is much longer than the English version, they’ll default to the English version, even if they know the Lakota version.”
For his part, Hill is doing what he can to pass on Lakota to the next generation. His daughters were among the first enrollees in the Lakota immersion daycare, which started in Hill’s home and has since moved to its own building. But Hill’s efforts don’t stop there.
“I have two daughters, one is 6 and one is 2½, and I speak exclusively Lakota to them and have since they were born,” he said. “That gave me a shot in the arm for having to really step up my game.”