SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The founder of a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the Lakota language says the alcoholism, high suicide rates and rampant drug use plaguing young people on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation stem from a lack of identity and a loss of culture.
Those troubling issues are what inspired Mike Carlow to create Tusweca Tiospaye, which hosts an annual summit focused on revitalizing tribal languages. This year's event is to run from Thursday to Saturday in Rapid City.
"I associate a lot of the social problems today, especially with our youth — the gangs, alcohol and drug abuse, drop-out rates, suicide rates — I associate those things with a lack of identity, a loss of culture, loss of language, loss of traditions," Carlow said. "And so I created this organization to kind of combat all of those things — to bring our language and culture back to our youth and hopefully create better lives for them as well."
Soon after forming the group, he started traveling to different reservations around the country learning about and promoting language revitalization as a way to help young people. When he realized there were several small groups working to fight the loss of the language, he decided to bring them together as one organization.
Carlow and his group's annual Lakota, Dakota, Nakota Language Summit brings together hundreds of tribal members and tribal educators from all over the U.S. to share best practices and techniques for improving language fluency. The summit is expected to draw as many as 800 people this year.
This is the fifth year for the event. Participants include Sioux tribes from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana and Canada, as well as tribes from other parts of the country.
The effort expands beyond the Oglala Sioux. More than 20 tribes are represented, including the Standing Rock Sioux, the Winnebago, the Cree and the Dine Nation.
"It's not to push one way or one method or one orthography or one curriculum. (It's) to bring everyone together to share so that we can all be exposed to what's out there — what strategies, what methods, what resources, technologies are out there," Carlow said.
Tribal members can take the different approaches back home and add to what they are already doing successfully, he added.
Peter Hill, who is opening up a language immersion day care for infants on the Pine Ridge reservation later this month, was to be one of the keynote speakers Thursday at the conference. Hill, who learned the language as an adult, said the various tribes and reservations need to come together as one to save the language.
"I think really the situation of the language is critical enough and dire enough that we just don't have time for all of that, you know, for people to be dismissing other peoples' work and being critical," said Hill, of Pine Ridge. "We need to find common ground and come together as much as we can and work for this common cause, because as these political struggles or disagreements play out, meanwhile we're bleeding speakers. We're losing fluent speakers if not every day, every week, and they're not being replaced."
The biggest obstacle to revitalizing the language is a lack of exposure, Carlow said. There was a time when Native Americans were not allowed to speak the language or practice their culture without fear of being punished, so it wasn't passed down through the generations.
Now there is a push to bring indigenous languages back, but language preservationists are competing for the attention of youth who are focused on the latest Hollywood blockbuster or social media post.
That's why Carlow and others are proponents of early-childhood language immersion schools, which will be the main focus of this year's summit along with creating a plan for long-term language revitalization.
By providing exposure early, they hope young people will gain an appreciation for their tribal language.
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