Nonprofit Receives Grant to Teach Lakota Language in NYC Despite Standing Rock Ban

To teach her 8- and 11-year-olds about their Lakota heritage, the Brooklyn-based Cheyenne mom has to rely on homeschooling and sporadic community events.

She teaches them traditional dances for powwows and on earth and prayer, and helps them learn about Native culture by attending events hosted by the American Indian Community House, a non-profit serving the Native American population of New York.

This includes events like the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Day vigil, held in Washington Square Park on May 5.

“One of the people on that list, for those murdered, is my children’s cousin,” Cheyenne, who asked that her last name not be released, told THE CITY. “And then also the history of the indigenous people, like my children are descendants of Sitting Bull.”

“There is a loss of our languages. More and more natives are speaking more English because of boarding schools,” she said. Specifically for the Lakota language, “There are not enough fluent speakers.”

To help fill this language gap, the New York Community Trust, the state’s oldest public charity, awarded the nonprofit The Language Conservancy a $44,000 grant in late April to teach the language. lakota, through the Marcia Ashman Fund for Children. (The New York Community Trust is a funder of THE CITY, which we disclose in accordance with our ethics policy, but donors have no influence over our editorial decisions.)

With the NYCT grant, six young Native Americans from the city completed a two-month internship with the Language Conservancy at its Indiana offices. The funding is also used to bring Native American language instructors to New York to teach Lakota locally on weekends.

But who should teach the language and how is a hotly debated topic on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation that spans North and South Dakota, a headquarters for declining Lakota-speaking populations.

On May 3, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Tribal Council passed a resolution specifically banning The Language Conservancy and The Lakota Language Consortium — two partner nonprofit organizations working to preserve native languages ​​— from operating on his reserve, citing concerns about a lack of cultural sensitivity in the groups’ teaching style.

Native language

The 2020 American Community Survey conducted by the US Census Bureau indicates that approximately 15,680 people spoke one of the “Dakota languages” at home, Lakota being included in this category. With more than 5,000 speakers, Lakota is among the top 5% of native languages, according to The Language Conservancy.

Despite condemnation from the Sioux tribe, the NYCT said it was happy to work with the group.

“We believe the Language Conservancy’s program to teach the Lakota language to Native Americans in New York was an opportunity to both fulfill the original intent of the donor and fulfill a need here in the city,” Marty said. Lipp, director of communications for the New York Community Trust. THE CITY.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Tribal Council did not respond to multiple requests for comment from THE CITY, but has previously said it opposes the teaching style and the use of non-native speakers as instructors.

Language Conservancy executive director Wilhelm Meya, who also sits on the board of the Lakota Language Consortium, noted that previous Language Weekend events in New York had received a high turnout, including 50 attendees. at an event in October.

“I would say the Language Weekend events were so successful and inspiring for New Yorkers, they asked for more teaching events, so we worked with one of the local teachers from Lakota to provide an ongoing weekend-like class,” Meya told THE TOWN. “Some of that original class continues[s] meeting every weekend for months to continue learning the Lakota language.

When Cheyenne heard about the grant while looking for Lakota language classes, she immediately called The Language Conservancy to enroll her children in classes. But he was told they were too young to participate in the weekend program. Although the grant is specific to young people, the minimum age required for the courses is 16 years old.

“It’s so that there’s a focused learning environment because it’s a college-level curriculum and pace,” Conservancy spokeswoman Tara Tadlock said.

“I’m livid,” Cheyenne said. “Not all Lakota live [a] reservation and has this opportunity.

“I think there should be a grant so that children who are not on the reserve have the opportunity to take these courses and obtain books and materials to learn, read, write and speak”, a- she added.

The controversial ban

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Tribal Council disputes who teaches the Lakota language and the methods used.

The Language Conservancy curriculum consists of a method that, according to Meya, “has proven to be the most effective for language teaching because it mimics the learning style of natural language acquisition and enables students to retain more linguistic information than other methods”.

These classes are taught by both native speakers and people who have already completed the program and speak Lakota as a second language, according to the Conservancy. Not all have Aboriginal heritage.

The tribal council resolution earlier this month against TLC declares its disapproval of “unethical efforts by linguists to attack and intimidate our SLO-only learners [student learning objectives] approaches and materials, while continually misleading our elders into believing that the vastly underpaid and unattributed expertise of first language speakers will freely benefit our language learners.

Essentially, the Board believes that The Language Conservancy’s teachers and teaching style lack the cultural sensitivity necessary to effectively transmit Indigenous languages.

Instead, he accuses the nonprofit of selling these services “without any provision to protect or maintain sacred stories or knowledge as an inalienable, non-transferable collective birthright of Oceti Sakowin for children. and grandchildren.”

The Oceti Sakowin, meaning “Seven Council Fires”, is also known as the Sioux Nation, and is a confederation of Lakota, Dakota and/or Nakota speaking nations, depending on the National Museum of the American Indian.

Phyllis Young, Standing Rock organizer for the Lakota People’s Bill, however, believes that preventing non-natives from teaching would violate traditional tribal law, which calls for treating everyone the same.

She pointed out how, in the 1980s, when the Native American community was experiencing high suicide rates, non-Natives came to help. These foreigners slept in their cars but were welcomed by the elders into their homes.

“They fed them and they said, you can stay in our house,” Young told THE CITY. “So we were shocked that the [Council’s] Health Education and Wellness Committee, the three women there, voted, approved[d] this resolution.

Young, who has legal experience having worked on laws such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, explained that the resolution not only removes non-Indigenous teachers, but also harms Indigenous teachers.

“When you do this action tomorrow, it will have no merit because you have not addressed the [Lakota Language Consortium] board who are not these white teachers,” she told the board ahead of the vote. “You do not have the power to go back and make a motion to cancel any of your councils that you have created here, or that are created on their own. You must apply equal or due process.

“I think it’s unfortunate that just one member of the tribe behind this resolution was able to misrepresent and misrepresent the work we’re doing,” Meya told THE CITY.

He did not comment on the details of this misrepresentation or name the tribesman, but instead referred to the nonprofit’s official statement in response to the resolution.

“New York Wants Us”

Either way, he still wants to meet the needs of learners in New York who want to take classes at The Language Conservancy.

“Working with the Native American youth community in New York, especially the learners, they have expressed great interest in continuing to have these learning opportunities such as language weekends, and so we follow that interest and these demands,” he said.

Young also believes that as long as these courses are in demand, they should be offered.

“I think it’s amazing and I think America is ready for us and if New York wants us then so be it. We are proof of the western hemisphere and wherever we are on the turtle island [North America] is a blessing,” she said. “Bring them, and if I have to come there myself to welcome them, I will.”

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio attends the Thunderbird American Indian Powwow at Queens Farm. July 24, 2021.

Michael Appleton/Mayor’s Photographic Office

While the Language Conservatory will offer these classes on weekends despite the controversy surrounding their grant, Cheyenne still does not have a Lakota language teacher for its children.

Unable to teach them herself, Cheyenne plans to fight her fight for these children’s tuition at colleges and universities, starting with New York University. His Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies previously in partnership with The Language Conservancy for its language weekend in February 2019.

“It’s been difficult because nobody speaks it, but you know, for the language to evolve, I have to push for it and I’ll go to any college where I have to,” she said. .

James C. Tibbs