Happy Lakota Language Day!
Today is Lakota Language Day and International Mother Language Day, both of which are dedicated to protecting what the United Nations called “the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage… and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.”
International Mother Language Day started in 2000 “to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism,” according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) website.
“There is a fundamental linkage between language and traditional knowledge related to biodiversity,” the UNESCO site says. “Local and indigenous communities have elaborated complex classification systems for the natural world, reflecting a deep understanding of local flora, fauna, ecological relations and ecosystem dynamics. A number of recent studies have shown that environmental knowledge embedded in indigenous names, oral traditions and taxonomies is often lost when a community shifts to another language.”
Along with these inherent values, another reason for starting the program was to try and stop the loss of these languages, including the native languages of the western hemisphere. UNESCO estimated that without intervention, half of 6,000 plus languages that exist today would disappear by the end of the century.
In the United States, according to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, there are 191 indigenous languages that face this problem. One of the languages on that list is Lakota, but there are educators and activists trying to change that.
The Lakota Language Consortium, based in Bloomington, Indiana, was founded in 2004 and works towards supporting “the Lakota language, culture and community by providing resources and technical assistance for language preservation and education.”
Will Meya, the consortium’s executive director, said Lakota Language Day was created to reach out to people interested in learning the language and the culture.
“It provides a great opportunity to highlight the importance of the Lakota language and encourage people to honor their culture by speaking, writing, texting or posting in Lakota,” Meya said.
He said the consortium has provided support materials to thousands of learners and operates the Lakota Summer Institute. He also said that while Lakota and other Native languages are taught in tribal colleges and some universities there are other ways of reaching potential learners, such as the Lakota Berenstain Bears project and the Rising Voices documentary.
Online resources are also available to indigenous people in Latin America where many hundreds of languages are listed in the UNESCO Atlas.
In Mexico, where 143 languages are considered to be in danger, there is the federally funded National Institute of Indigenous Languages, which faces different challenges than those of their counterparts in the U.S. The institute has been actively supporting the training of bilingual educators and staff to teach courses, such as the teaching of Indigenous Languages as a Second Language. In Mexico there are a few million indigenous speakers and the indigenous language courses are promoted in all sections of the country, to indigenous and non-indigenous alike.
Even some non-indigenous Mexican businesses like Unknown Mexico (Mexico Desconocido in Spanish) published a list of indigenous phrases of love and friendship on Valentine’s Day this year including words in Nahuatl, which still has more than a million speakers in the country.
Along with Mexico, Peru has a large indigenous population and according to the UNESCO Atlas, 62 Native languages are in danger. The Peruvian government has taken some steps to preserve the languages through its General Department of Intercultural, Bilingual and Rural Education.
The right to education in the native languages of Bolivia was put into law through the efforts of President Evo Morales who is Aymara; although even the Aymara language, with close to two million speakers, is vulnerable. In 2012, President Morales helped pass a law that allows any native speaker the right to “receive education in their mother language.”