College of LAS « Illinois


Mother Tongue

Interactive CD is helping revitalize the indigenous Dakota language and, hence, its culture.

Srinivasa Ramanujan

Ten years ago Brenda Farnell was working in a University of Iowa anthropology office when she overheard the familiar lilt and cadence of Dakota, a Native American language rapidly losing its fluent speakers. Astonished, Farnell walked into the hallway and introduced herself in Dakota to an equally astonished Melvin Grey Owl, who was on a campus visit with his son. At the time Farnell, now an LAS associate professor of linguistic anthropology, was about to lead a month–long multimedia workshop for endangered languages. Mr. Grey Owl, concerned about the same issue on his Crow Creek reservation in South Dakota, quickly signed on.

It was in this serendipitous manner that the Dakota Language Project was born, a series of CD–ROMs narrated by Mr. Grey Owl and geared toward children to perpetuate the Dakota language while preserving Dakota culture.

"I inherited this project by default," Farnell says, "because Mr. Grey Owl wouldn't let me go! He followed me here to Illinois and said we've got to finish this project. So I started working with him then and he came to campus a number of times. Each time he came we would do more work on this project. He's in his 70s and a fluent Dakota speaker. Just before we started working, his daughter was killed in a car wreck. So in some ways this project is a memorial to her, for his son who has survived, and for his grandchildren and great–grandchildren."

Brenda Farnell

Mr. Grey Owl's language is one of more than 200 that are in danger of disappearing over the next 20 years as the English language continues to spread throughout indigenous North American communities. Farnell notes, "The imposition of English began with missionaries and government agents and the imposition of Western education, especially the Indian Boarding Schools. This process has been continued and exacerbated through the arrival of English-speaking television, videos, and DVDs. It has accelerated that process of language loss that began when the reservation system was set up in the late 1800s, and so many indigenous communities are now engaged in efforts to reverse it."

"And it's not enough to simply have a few lessons for the kindergarten class and hope they will continue. There's no context in which they can practice if their parents don't speak it anymore. So unless people have access to grandparents, they can grow up without really hearing the language very much at all."

The first CD was completed a year ago but not before some important corrections. When the first version was unveiled to Mr. Grey Owl, Farnell could tell he didn't like parts of it. Some moving images were of "whiz–bang" cartoon characters that had no cultural relevance to reservation children in South Dakota and disrupted the gentle, encouraging tone of Mr. Grey Owl's voice. Farnell started over. Images now include games with beadwork, local foods, buffalo, and other natural images from the Great Plains region.

"It is now a Dakota space, not a white man thing. It was such an important lesson for us to learn, that it had to fit with his sensibility. And the success in the community with those children was going to depend on whether they felt this was a Dakota space."

After Farnell completes each interactive version, Mr. Grey Owl tries it out on his grandchildren back in South Dakota. The current version begins with a Dakota Honor song while buffalo move across the Great Plains. Mr. Grey Owl recites stories and words in both English and Dakota, and he encourages listeners at each step, just as a grandfather would.

Farnell's next goal for the language project is to create a CD geared toward women's discourse. Differences occur regularly between the way men and women speak in the language on the reservation, Farnell notes.

Mr. Grey Owl

"Men tend to say, ‘Hau Koda'—‘Hello, friend.' Women tend to say, ‘Ha Mitakuya'—‘Hello, my relative.' We have the same in our culture. It's about performing your gender identity as much as anything. All societies do that using both speech and gesture."

The Dakota Language Project is a natural career progression for Farnell. As a graduate student she went to Montana, where she became a speaker of the closely related Nakota and Plains Indian Sign Language while living among the Assiniboine and Gros Ventres communities at Fort Belknap Reservation. She soon was confronted with that area's most pressing issue: only a dozen or so elders could still speak the native Nakota language. (Nakota and Dakota are both Siouan languages traditionally spoken by Native Americans on the Great Plains.)

"I arrived at a time when people were just beginning to realize the seriousness of the decline in the number of speakers and therefore a decline in the number of people who knew the stories and could tell them in this traditional way using the sign language. And so these elders privileged me by allowing me to videotape and record these stories. They saw it as a means to preserve this knowledge for future generations.

"Even though I was an outsider they trusted me with that. They saw that maybe several generations down the road, people would return to wanting to know what this is about. I was able to document it."

For the last decade Farnell has returned regularly to Montana. She notes sadly that at least five of those last speakers have since passed away, but also that the Fort Belknap Community College language revitalization programs are up and running, and using those videos she made.

Anyone who has traveled to a country where his or her native language is not spoken will suddenly understand how vital it is to be able to speak in one's mother tongue. Farnell says language and culture are inseparable. "Language is the prime repository for a way of being in the world. That connection between the way you think and the way you speak and act is the way you are in the world. The way you construct the physical world around you is primarily through the categories that your language gives you. So it's very important to indigenous peoples. They want to be able to pray in their own language. They want to be able to know the stories and tell the stories that are the repository of their history. And the moral compass is encoded in those stories. They want to know those in their native language. Translated to English they lose so much."

Read more in Writing For a Visual World.

By Stephen J. Lyons
Fall/Winter 2006–07