Language bill stirring positive emotions in Native communities

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA TV) -- A bill in the Legislature that would grant official state status to Native languages is stirring emotion in Indian Country among those, who as kids, were were banned from speaking them.

The legislation, SB-126, is seen as a milestone in race relations and a 180 degree switch from how the Native languages used to be addressed.

"My grandma used to be in a boarding school with her brothers and sisters and they weren't allowed to speak to each other, especially in Lakota," said Lakota language student Christopher Alexander Pina.

Added Lakota teacher Dollie Red Elk who lived through the boarding school era: "If we whispered (Lakota) at night the lights came on and we were due for a punishment," she said. "And so we used to joke around that, gee, we went to the school of hard knocks. You know, it was literal hard knocks."

And so the state taking steps now to recognize and even celebrate the territory's linguistic heritage is getting a big welcome.

"It's a step toward equality in the race relationships in the state of South Dakota," said Dallas Nelson who runs the Lakota Language Initiative at Thunder Valley Development Corp.

The bill's prime sponsor was moved by kids who spoke on behalf of the bill in Pierre.

"I couldn't have been more proud of the people who came up to testify for that," said Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission. "To have those kids in the room to really be part of history. It was a big day."

And elders reflected on living through history. I asked Dollie red Elk what the day means to her. I asked her to tell me in Lakota. Her eis her translation of what she told me:

"This is the happiest day in my life. I was so happy to hear (about the bill). We can now comfortably teach our children the Lakota language and culture so they will know who they are and be comfortable in who they are."

The bill has passed the Senate and a House committee. It is expected to pass the full House and get signed into law by Gov. Kristi Noem, R-S.D.