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Culture-based literacy: improving access to Lakota texts at Standing Rock

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Oliver Mayeux.


The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is home to a flourishing movement to revitalize Lakota, a language it shares with several other sovereign nations. Among the ground-breaking initiatives to “move the language forward” is a 4-hour-a-day language course for tribal college students. Following best practices in curriculum design, reading and listening activities are based authentic material, but access to such material is riddled with challenges.

Missionaries among the Dakota were the first to put the language into the Latin script, followed by native writers such as George Bushotter, George Sword and Thomas Tyon. An enormous amount is also owed to Ella Deloria, a Native anthropologist, who transcribed hundreds of narratives and traditional stories in the mid twentieth century. More recently, in the past few decades linguists have recorded hundreds of hours of speech by fluent Elders. As these speakers gradually make their journeys, such texts and recordings provide an increasingly vital lifeline to authentic language.

However, most of these materials sit in archives and private collections thousands of miles away from Lakota Country. Curriculum designers must on the one hand negotiate repatriation of the materials, and on the other, navigate nuanced community attitudes to whether (and how) Lakota should be written in the first place. This talk looks closely at these challenges, and evaluates possible solutions within the broader context of decolonization.

About the speaker

Elliot Bannister is the Language Specialist for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The tribal Language and Culture Institute, headquartered in Fort Yates, North Dakota, works in partnership with Sitting Bull College to revitalize the Lakota and Dakota languages. Elliot is originally from Northampton and graduated from SOAS , University of London.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Endangered Languages and Cultures Group series.

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