From the Editor's Desk: Our languages and our worldviews
Saturday, October 11 2014
Written by Alfred Walking Bull, The Circle Managing Editor,
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whats_new_-_walfred_walking_bull.jpg Those of us who grow up in privilege are required to acknowledge that privilege and do good things with that privilege. In Lakota culture, those of us descended from traditional leadership are reminded and invited to practice that principle every day we draw breath.

It may seem odd for those of us who come from impoverished, tribal communities to think of ourselves as privileged. We have almost no advantage in the world: unemployment, substance and alcohol abuse, educational challenges, the list goes on. However, for those of us who were raised to listen to our elders, our stories and our language, we have an enormous wealth, privilege and responsibility of culture to guide those who did not have our advantages.

Language is both the root and the fruit of our culture, it shapes who we are, our worldview, our values and is shaped by who we are, our worldview and our values. Recently, Duane Hollow Horn Bear, an elder and spiritual leader on my reservation spoke and said, “We have a hard time understanding each other when we use the D-dialect, the N-dialect and L-dialects, so we use the E-dialect when we're all together.” His allusion to English among an almost exclusively Lakota audience notwithstanding, he admitted to an often overlooked subject of how we communicate as indigenous communities in a modern world.

Though we as a tribal people have lived through centuries of oppression and subjugation at the hands of America, the one thing we have taken from the country that grew up around us is our ability to keep our traditions alive and documented. In our cover story, we see how Ojibwe and Dakota linguists are fighting every day to keep our languages vital and a part of our daily lives. They do so because it is imperative to remember our worldviews.


A common phrase in Lakota prayer is “unsimala,” loosely translated means “pity me” or “have compassion for me.” It is used in our prayer because in our faith, we understand that we – as human beings – are only one of many beings in this physical world. The one being who has dominion over us is the creator (as we envision it) and we know that for all our own creations, civilization and accomplishments, we are at the mercy of something greater. And though we have certain advantages that makes our species dominant, it is our privilege to use those advantages and our responsibility to help one another in this existence. Many concepts are encoded in one, simple word.

Recently while talking to a friend about my own upbringing, I stumbled on the reality that I was privileged by the way my parents raised me to think of the world through language. We discussed family names, Indian names and the histories contained in them, a wealth of analytical and spiritual knowledge carried with every one.

Even though we as tribal people rank among the lowest economically, educationally and psychologically, we have these advantages of knowledge with our own language that we use to protect others. It is what guides advocates like Winona LaDuke to fight against the environmental damage caused by controversial mining and transportation methods like fracking and the pipelines that threaten to cross treaty lands in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Nebraska. While the economic boon is surely something that can be of use to those isolated tribal communities, our language tells us that material wealth is short-lived and secondary to our physical and spiritual wealth.

In a recent Washington Post piece, even the citizens and officials of the Ft. Berthold reservation acknowledge what is happening to their community. “It’s like a tidal wave, it’s unbelievable,” said Diane Johnson, chief judge at the MHA Nation. She said crime has tripled in the past two years and that 90 percent is drug-related. “The drug problem that the oil boom has brought is destroying our reservation.”

If there is one thing we have learned so far as a people, it is that we continue to suffer the long-standing effects of inter-generational trauma. Just over a century ago, our way of life was judged as less-than-human, judged to be insufficient by a people who did not understand our ways and replaced with a system of education, politics, law and religion that was arbitrary, patronizing and lethal to the identity of each tribe that was forced to adopt it. Our great-grandparents and grandparents lived through being told they were not human, that their ways were evil and everything about their identity was wrong. When you tell that to any human being, back it up with physical violence, intimidation and legal consequences, the effects reach into the future.

But rather than lie down and give up. We find that our present generations continue the work of restoring our languages in the hopes of restoring our values and ways of life. It is not easy work and it certainly is not the only way to solve the problems that challenge us, but that is it supported by our elders and gaining momentum are signs that we are doing something right.

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