A Standing Rock Sioux tribal member at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota. A new generation of Standing Rock Sioux are studying the Lakota language. 


Patrick Cox


The Dakota Access Pipeline protests have put Standing Rock back on the map. 

Like many hundreds of reporters, I went there recently. But not to cover the protests — rather, to ask the members of the Standing Rock Sioux and other Lakota tribes about the fate of their ancestral language. 

The Lakota language is a key component of Lakota culture. Like all other Native American tongues, it seems doomed. Most people stopped passing it onto their children. We at the World in Words podcast have been looking at this phenomenon and at ways younger generations are trying to bring back the old languages. We've reported on Shinnecock, Myaamia, Ktunaxa, Keres, Hawaiian, Ainu and Irish

Marie Kills in Sight is pictured here outside the St Francis Mission in Rosebud, South Dakota.


Patrick Cox

Marie Kills in Sight is one of the lucky ones who grew up speaking Lakota as her mother tongue. Born in 1952, she spoke Lakota at home and English at the public and parochial schools she attended. Today, she runs a museum next to the St Francis Mission on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. The museum is dedicated to the memory of Father Eugene Buechel, a Jesuit missionary who arrived in Rosebud in 1902, learned Lakota and wrote a Lakota grammar.

Czech linguist Jan Ullrich works closely with the Lakota to reform and revive their language. 


The Language Conservancy 

Marie loves the spelling system that Buechel helped establish for Lakota. But linguists don't. They say it's inaccurate, developed by missionaries untrained in phonetics. As a result, many of the unique sounds of the language were lost in written form. Linguists working with Lakota tribes have recently developed a new system that more accurately reflects the unique sounds of Lakota. But Marie is old-school and not convinced by the new alphabet. 

"They're making it easier to learn," says Marie. "They adding extra letters for [people who want to learn Lakota]." 

This is a language class at the Lakota Summer Institute on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.


Patrick Cox

She says it's more like phonics than a true alphabet. 

The linguist who has worked closest with a tribe is Jan Ullrich, who grew up far from Lakota country, in what was then Czechoslovakia. 

"We were oppressed by a colonizing power," Ullrich tells me, referring to the Soviet Union. "We sympathized with other people who had a history of being colonized." 

As a student, Ullrich found a Lakota dictionary in a library in Prague. A Czech friend who had emigrated sent him more Lakota texts from the United States. And then, after the Berlin Wall came down, Ullrich went to the Dakotas and learned to speak the language. He now advises tribal elders on many aspects of the language including grammar, spelling and neologisms.

And he leads annual Lakota immersion camps run by the Language Conservancy on the Standing Rock Reservation. 

Alayna Eagle Shield leads a Lakota conversation class at the Lakota Summer Institute on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.


Patrick Cox

I spoke with several teachers and students at this year's language camp. Some of the teachers are second-language learners themselves. Some of the students were non-Lakota. All had sacrificed something so they could be there. 

One of the teachers, Alayna Eagle Shield, is raising her children to speak Lakota. That's in contrast to her own upbringing: Her father was a native speaker, but chose not to pass the language on to her. 

Today, attitudes toward the language are more positive, even as the number of native speakers is in steep decline. There's a Lakota immersion school on the reservation. Alayna has to pay extra for the classes, and it's a two-hour round trip to get there. Occasionally, she has doubts, but not for long. She wants her children to have the kind of exposure to the language, and Lakota identity, that she never had as a child. 

"I try to decide what I could give them the best chance at life," says Alayna. "For me, that's giving them a sense of who they truly are."

Podcast Contents

1:00 Standing Rock is about more than water.

3:15 Sioux warrior Victor Mature. 

6:10 Why Marie Kills in Sight speaks Lakota and English.

7:48 Father Eugene Buechel learns Lakota.

9:15 Lakota behind the Iron Curtain.

12:52 The missionaries translated the words with a Euopean and Christian bias.

16:05 Not your grandmother's Lakota spelling system. 

17:07 The extraorinary life of Ella Deloria.

18:50 How you get a new word introduced into Lakota.

19:05 "You could create an artifical language. We don't want to do that."

20:30 Words for mattress, velcro, pecan.

24:40 The legacy of Shoots at Her in the Midst of the Little Bighorn fame.

26:15 That Oscar-winning movie. 

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With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities

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