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Richard Doty

Wil Meya

Last modified: Tuesday, April 30, 2002

IU American Indian Research Institute working to save native language in Dakotas

The Indiana University American Indian Studies Research Institute is the driving force behind a plan to halt the loss of the Lakota language in North and South Dakota. Once one of the most widely spoken native languages in North America, Lakota is now in danger of extinction.

Wil Meya of the AISRI staff is director of the recently formed Lakota Language Consortium. He said AISRI is the lead agency in creating the LLC from among 38 school systems that teach some 18,000 Lakota students. Meetings have been held with school board members, superintendents, principals and Lakota studies teachers from the majority of schools on the Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock and Rosebud reservations in the Dakotas.

"Everyone involved has expressed a strong commitment to the consortium concept as the best way to revive the Lakota language," explained Meya, who lived on the Pine Ridge reservation for several years. The major LLC goal is to standardize Lakota language instruction, curriculum and resource materials to provide the necessary long-term technical, social and financial structure needed to revitalize the Lakota language. The Web site for the LLC is

"Lakota speakers of the last fluent generation are becoming elders, and no realistic grassroots effort had emerged to direct the language recovery until the LLC was created," said IU Professor Ray DeMallie, AISRI director and a leading Lakota scholar. DeMallie, an anthropologist, has studied the Lakotas for more than 30 years.

DeMallie said the number of Lakota speakers is rapidly diminishing, and current estimates show that within 10 years or less, 90 percent of the population at Pine Ridge will be unable to speak Lakota unless this trend is reversed. He emphasized that if the language were lost, the culture of the Lakotas would be lost as well. "When the language is lost, many of the cultural elements are lost, such as its greetings, praises, laws, literature, songs, riddles, proverbs, cures, wisdom and prayers. A culture can't be expressed and passed on in any other way," he said.

Meetings have been held in the past three months between personnel from AISRI, Lakota tribes and involved schools to finalize plans for the LLC. Officials said that when the consortium membership is complete this summer, a full implementation of the language revitalization will begin. Additional funding will be sought from the federal government and other agencies. IU ultimately will withdraw from the LLC leadership, with subsequent management being handled by local entities and students trained through the project.

DeMallie and Meya said IU is a logical choice to administer the consortium in this developmental stage. AISRI is a leader in American Indian language documentation, instruction and revitalization. It also is an international leader in developing sophisticated computer software to support its language programs with numerous American Indian projects throughout the United States. In addition to the leadership of DeMallie and the involvement of Meya, AISRI Associate Director Douglas Parks is a linguist with 35 years of experience in working with Plains languages. He is now compiling a dialect dictionary of the Sioux (Dakota/Lakota) languages. More information about AISRI is available at

The IU Department of Anthropology has been a world leader for more than 50 years in the study of American Indian languages and linguistics. Under Parks' editorship, the department publishes the journal Anthropological Linguistics. The IU School of Education is a national leader and has numerous specialties in language acquisition.