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Oglala Lakota College Hosts Lakota Language Academy
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Wil Meya

The Oglala Lakota College in Kyle is hosting the Lakota Language Acadamy this week. The 10-day academy is for Lakota Language learners of all levels. Participants can focus on five learning tracks - from beginners to Lakota Language teaching methods. The academy is just one language preservation effort from the Lakota Language Consortium.

Wil Meya is the executive director and he joined us on the In the Moment for this conversation. You can listen to it in its entirety here.

Jackie Hendry: Welcome back to the In The Moment. I'm Jackie Hendry. This week, Oglala Lakota College in Kyle is hosting the Lakota Language Academy. The 10-day intensive event is for Lakota language learners of all levels. Participants can focus on five learning tracks from beginning to Lakota language teaching methods. The academy is just one language preservation effort from the Lakota Language Consortium. Wil Meya is the executive director and joins us now on the phone from Kyle. Wil, welcome to In The Moment. Thanks for joining us.

Wil Meya: Great. Thanks, Jackie. Glad to be here.

Jackie Hendry: We'll start off with a little bit more about the language academy that's going on right now. Is this is the first time that you've held something like 10-day intensive workshop?

Wil Meya: Actually this would be the second that we have had it at Oglala Lakota College. Before that we were at Sitting Bull College and we ran that institute from 2007 to about 2017. We're also happy to start a new one this year at University of North Dakota. Actually this year there's going to be three summer institutes available for participants if they wanted to. They could be taking classes in Lakota from basically the end of May through the end of July.

Jackie Hendry: What is the status of the Lakota language today?

Wil Meya: Right. Lakota is one of the larger Native American languages in the United States. It's probably the fourth or fifth largest. Yet it's also... That's no guarantee that it's going to survive. In fact, most of the Native American languages in the United States are on the verge of extinction and are no longer being passed down to future generations. That's the case for Lakota as well. It's not been passed down pretty much since the 1950s.

Part of the task that we have as an organization and the working with the schools and the tribal education departments is try to figure out how can we get young people to be speakers of Lakota again, how do we kind of pump again and get the language being used again in a daily context. Part of that is advancing the skillset that teachers have. Part of that is motivating young learners, adult learners to learn the language. There's a strong desire for young adults to learn their language. They want it. They want to speak Lakota. It's just often they don't have the opportunities or the material resources to do that.

That's a big part of why the summer institutes and the language academies are set up and in place there.

Jackie Hendry: Right. I think for many people who perhaps English is their first and only language, we use it everyday, it's easy to take language for granted in some sense. Can you put in perspective for our listeners why it's important to keep languages like Lakota thriving?

Wil Meya: Yeah. Lakota obviously has been used for tens of thousands of years. It has a very rich history. It represents the culture. The culture is expressed through the language, in the songs and in the stories and in the prayers and in all the ways that Lakota is a unique culture. Within that is a worldview, is a perspective that is a linguistic treasure. It has a poetry to its own. It has a philosophy. That perspective is important to have. It creates a level of diversity in the world that brings new ideas, brings fresh concepts. It's important not just to speak one language, but be able to participate actively in the ways.

We're not advocating for folks to just be speaking Lakota. I think there's a place for Lakota in an English-speaking world. That's really I think the goal for most people today where people can live both as productive members of the modern world, but also as unique and culturally rich tribal people and participate as being part of their own identity, but also the identity of the state I think hangs in the balance with that as well.

Jackie Hendry: Right. Language isn't only about communicating with each other, but a way of thinking about the world and relating to the world.

Wil Meya: Absolutely. Speaking a new language gives you basically a new perspective. You can be a different person frankly in that language. The more languages you speak allows you to express yourself in a different way that can be profoundly different than in English. Obviously English has great utility. It allows you to participate in this vast world economy and all the other things that are so important. But at the same time, it is its own thing. Lakota, of course, is one of many tribal languages that were here, are here in this country and represent a strong culture and a strong identity that deserves to be maintained and preserved.

Jackie Hendry: Right. Bring us back to this Lakota Language Academy that's happening now in Kyle. Give us a little bit more of a taste of what that 10 days entails.

Wil Meya: As you mentioned in the intro, there's teachers that are obviously getting their training. They're going to get professional development in things like the linguistics of the language where they can learn the phonology, the morphology and the syntax. Those are just fancy ways of saying, "Hear the sounds of the language. Here are the ways that the words themselves need to be changed in order to create different kinds of meaning like conjugating a verb or those kinds of things, and then how to arrange the words so that they make sense grammatically." It's important for teachers to learn not just about the language, but also how to be able to teach the language to English-speaking kids.

For example, in Lakota there are words and sounds particularly that don't occur in English. English-speaking kids have to be taught how to pronounce for example different kinds of K's, P's and T sounds. There's four different kinds of K's, P's and T sounds in Lakota that don't exist in English. Unless you teach the kids the distinction, they may just mispronounce that and we don't want that to happen.

There's teachers learning those kinds of skills. They're also learning methods, courses to be able to better deliver the language using song and much more intuitive approaches to language teaching. Then the other big group that are attending these summer institutes and language academies are the adult learners. We're super pleased to have young adults coming to these institutes and are discovering that wow, this language is learnable. I can actually learn this and it's doable. It's fun. It also bring other learners together. It's a very motivating, powerful experience.

Gets them excited about the language and feeling like there's a movement underway that yeah, it's not just me learning alone, but I have other people that are learning. We can get together and we can practice speaking together and doing all those kinds of things. That's really the beginning. If we can get young adults to be proficient in Lakota, gain fluency and eventually raise their kids with it, put their kids in immersive schools, that's really the beginnings of a multigenerational process of restoring Lakota.

Jackie Hendry: The camaraderie is important. Those teaching methods are important. But as we mentioned earlier, having the materials and resources to learn and to teach is important too. That's another big part of the Lakota Language Consortium does. Can you tell us a little bit about what some of those materials and resources are?

Wil Meya: Lakota Language Consortium began in 2004 as an organization that was started with schools. Eventually became its own nonprofit. Through that organization, there's now been over a hundred different titles produced for Lakota language. Everything from picture books, dictionaries, apps, textbooks, through a sequence of levels one through five. We even did the cartoon series of The Berenstain Bears Bears. That is actually shown on SDPB. It's all these kinds of things together that give a learner the materials that they would need to be successful. A new grammar just came out. It's very powerful.

Let's adult learners not just take the words that they can see in isolation, but know how to put those together in a proper way so they have the confidence to build their fluency. There's probably more available in Lakota now. Actually there is more available in Lakota now than ever before, but also it's probably the most... There's more materials in Lakota than pretty much any other Native American language today as a result of what LLC was able to do.

Jackie Hendry: As far as this workshop going on this week, something this intensive, how many people are involved and how many people are participating?

Wil Meya: Right. There's probably about 80 to 100 participants over the course of two weeks. They take five tracks whether they're returning after the first year, second year, third year, so on, and there's different tracks for learners, for teachers. They come together. It's an intensive program. It's three hours in the morning, then a break for lunch, then three hours in the afternoon. Everyday basically six, seven hours of contact. Then over the course of five days, you've got 30 hours of contact total over two weeks. It's very intensive. It's kind of like a bootcamp in some ways for the language.

People's brains really starts filling up by Wednesday and saying they can't take it anymore in a joking way. Eventually it's like a muscle that you practice. We call it like a marathon as well. You just have to kind of hang in there and really in those two weeks you're going to learn more Lakota than you learned in 10 or 20 years. That's what's so fun about it and that's what brings people back to it every year. They're like, "I want more. I want to learn more. I want to be part of this." These institutes are just critical ways for getting that done.

Jackie Hendry: You're obviously very passionate, very well-versed in the subject matter. I wonder if you would share us a little bit about how you came to be so invested in preserving the Lakota language.

Wil Meya: Right. Well, you know, of course, it is a team effort. There's a big team of linguists, activists, educators that are involved with Lakota Language Consortium and have been for many years. It really is fundamentally a team effort. With that being said, what interested me about Lakota was I wanted to learn it myself and I wanted to... This was 15 more years ago. It's just there weren't resources available to it. When I was a grad student, I realized that there were some opportunities to...

With that, I find that there just wasn't anything available to learn Lakota and just some of the expertise I know I could bring to the topic, bring those together, helped me be part of the Lakota Language Consortium and what I could bring to it. I think fundamentally there was a need and a lot of the good people in the right place at the right time that could find solutions to it.

Jackie Hendry: If there's someone listening to this right now and maybe they missed this academy happening right now but there's other events coming up, how can they get involved if they want to become a Lakota language learner themselves?

Wil Meya: If they're within driving distance of Kyle, South Dakota, they're certainly welcome to participate this week in the summer academy at Oglala Lakota College at the administrative center there Piya Wiconi. That's available this week. Beginning next week, there's also a program at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota, just across the border. That's a three week program for most of June. Then, of course, there's pretty much our flagship program will be at the University of North Dakota this year at Grand Forks from July 8 through the 24th. That program will provide you with credits.

You can get a degree and a certificate and many other things that will be available at the University of North Dakota campus in Grand Forks. That is called Lakota Summer Institute North. As I mentioned, you could theoretically take classes from the end of May to the end of July. It's a great opportunity for those that really want to learn and it's open to everybody. It's just a lot of fun and really exciting and interesting. The language learning itself is just I think a real surprise to everybody how much you can learn and how accessible it really is.

Jackie Hendry: Is there a cost involved with these workshops throughout the summer?

Wil Meya: Most of the workshops are subsidized whether through grants or through the colleges themselves, but there are certain costs. For example, at the North Dakota event, there's a minimal cost for the housing. I think it's $20 a night. Then there's some cost for the credits themselves through the University of North Dakota as well as other things. If you have questions, it's on the website. You can just type in Lakota Summer Institute on Google or you can go to the website itself for the institute and that is laksummerinst.com. That is LAKSUMMERINST.com People can go there and register and find our more.

All the questions are pretty much answered there in terms of costs and other kinds of things that need to be set up for that.

Jackie Hendry: Great. My guest has been Mil Meya, executive director of the Lakota Language Consortium. The Lakota Language Academy at Oglala Lakota College continues through this week. Wil, thank you so much for taking time out of the busy week to chat with us. We really appreciate it and hope to have you back again some time.

Wil Meya: Sure. Thanks, Jackie. I appreciate it very much.