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A Vocal Revival

Photo by Robbie Short.

As the golden sun begins to tumble down the horizon, the Native American Cultural Center, or NACC, comes to life. The lights in the conference room buzz on, illuminating wooden tables accented with a dotting of pastel chairs: sky blue, lavender, mint. It’s Monday night, and I’m attending a class in Lakȟóta, a Native American language spoken by around two thousand people in North and South Dakota. 

There are five students in class tonight. While each belongs to the Lakȟóta nation, they represent three different tribes. Bobby Pourier, Jacob Rosales, and Marlee Kelly are Oglála Lakȟóta and attended Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation together. Chase Warren is Húŋkpapȟa Lakȟóta, and Luta Fast Dog is Sicangu Lakȟóta. They filter in slowly, cupping freshly steeped tea from the kitchen and snacks from their dorm rooms. Each finds a seat near the TV, where Nacole Walker, a Lakȟóta language instructor at Sitting Bull College in North Dakota, Skypes in. The students prop open laptops and set down stuffed animals: a llama, jackrabbit, and small metal frog, part of today’s lesson on postpositions. Unlike English, Lakȟóta uses postpositions rather than prepositions, placing words after a noun to indicate its relative location. 

“I didn’t have a plush toy!” Pourier protests, wielding his metal frog for the camera. The room bubbles with laughter. 

As class commences, seriousness settles in, interspersed with wide-grinned laughter. Walker prompts each student by name, asking them to describe the relative locations of their stuffed animals. 

In many ways, this class is like any other language seminar at Yale. Each student has a reference text open on-screen (the New Lakota Dictionary). Their laptops are decorated with stickers (“Yale Native,” “Mahalo Ke Akua,” and “Blue State Coffee”). But there’s one notable difference: even though these students meet twice a week for an hour each time and are assigned homework, as they do in other Yale classes, they aren’t receiving course credit. 

“Tokša akhé waŋčhíyaŋkiŋ kte,” the five chant in unison, as Walker waves goodbye. In English, it means, “I will see you later.” 

While only a handful of universities like the University of Oklahoma, University of North Dakota, and University of South Dakota offer indigenous language courses for credit, universities around the country are shifting towards doing so. Peer institutions like Stanford and Dartmouth both offer Native American Studies majors and a wide selection of courses on Native American history. The University of Pennsylvania plans to offer Cherokee language classes soon, and hopes to expand to other Native American languages that can fulfill the four-semester Penn Language Requirement, per the Daily Pennsylvanian. 

The Yale NACC’s Native American Language Project, founded in 2015, offers seven courses: three intermediate classes in Cherokee, Choctaw, and Native Hawaiian, and four elementary classes in Lakȟóta, Mohawk, Navajo, and Ojibwe, including the class I’m sitting in today. But unlike its peers, Yale treats these rigorous seminars more like extracurriculars than coursework. Taking Lakȟóta doesn’t get a student any closer to a Yale degree, even though, as Walker explains to me, she teaches her students with the curriculum she uses at Sitting Bull.

In the United States, 150 to 170 indigenous languages remain, remembered primarily by tribal elders due to years of targeted assimilation policies by the federal government. From 1869 to the mid-twentieth century, Native American children around the country were sent to government boarding schools meant to “civilize” them. At school, students were abused for speaking their indigenous languages, taught to reject their culture. Hoping to spare their descendants the same ordeal, many chose not to teach the languages to their children, who, in turn, have found themselves unable to pass the knowledge along. 

As Pourier explained to me, “My great-grandmother went to a boarding school where she was routinely beaten, and had her mouth washed out with soap if she spoke Lakȟóta. As a girl, she decided never to speak the language or pass it down to her children so they wouldn’t suffer the same abuse. No one in the family spoke Lakȟóta out of fear of persecution.”

First-year student Gabriella Blatt, a member of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe in Montana and my suitemate, has a similar story. Back home on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation, less than twenty of the five thousand residents are fluent in Cree. Her mother can’t speak the language, and it wasn’t until her grandmother’s dying breath that Blatt heard her speak Cree for the first time. For students like Blatt and Pourier, the stakes are high: if their generation does not learn the languages of the elders, these languages will vanish entirely. And language is more than just a way to communicate –– for Native Americans and indigenous peoples, language is inseparable from culture, Pourier says.

“I have to reintroduce myself to my own culture. As a colonized person I can’t understand traditional ceremonies. Because I don’t understand the language, I can’t understand it on a spiritual level,” he explains.

Currently, tribes across the United States are working diligently to revive their languages. Pourier’s reservation school is in its fifth year of operating a language immersion program that runs from pre-K through the twelfth grade. Soon, they will graduate their first students who are fully fluent in Lakȟóta. The question is whether the value of such bilingualism will be recognized by institutions like Yale.

Prominently displayed on a shelf in the NACC’s upstairs living room is “A Party Game for Indigenant Peoples,” known as Cards Against Colonialism. Its battered red box is lovingly frayed around the edges, and rests beside a pristine edition of Cards Against Humanity, its fraternal twin. It’s easy to tell which one is more popular on game night. Next to the card games rests a whiteboard covered in the languages of the NACC community, from Cree to Lakȟóta, Navajo to Mohawk, Chinese to German. 

But there’s one notable difference: even though these students meet twice a week for an hour each time and are assigned homework, as they do in other Yale classes, they aren’t receiving course credit.

While many indigenous students are taking languages like Chinese and German to fulfill their language requirement, it’s often not their first choice. First-year Madeleine Freeman, who is both Choctaw and Chickasaw, studied Turkish from the fourth to the tenth grade and will continue to take it at Yale to fulfill her language requirement. However, she says that she would switch to Choctaw in a heartbeat. She explains that one of the reasons she chose Yale was because Choctaw is taught here, and she was unaware that she wouldn’t receive credit. Until the rules change, she’ll continue to take informal classes through the NALP.

“Choctaw is mine, there’s a personal connection to it,” Freeman explains. “It’s a language that needs people to speak it, and it’s my duty to speak this language. There’s something deeper within myself that I don’t get aside from speaking Choctaw.”

At school, students were abused for speaking their indigenous languages, taught to reject their culture.

Yale offers a smorgasbord of languages for students to pick and choose from in its Blue Book, which lists its official course offerings for each year. This includes more popular courses such as Spanish, French, and Chinese, and less highly enrolled languages such as Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, Coptic, Kiswahili, Sanskrit, Yoruba, and Zulu, all of which grant language credit. Yale gets creative in order to provide the latter group of languages. Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, per its course description in Blue Book, is taught using distance learning. That entails videoconferencing in a teacher from Columbia University, much like how Walker Skypes in to the NACC conference room twice a week. 

While Yale has never offered an indigenous or Native American language class for credit, it offers support through Directed Independent Language Study, or DILS, a program that allows students to study languages that Yale doesn’t offer. Students can’t get course credit through DILS, but they can receive sessions with a language partner twice a week and advice from staff at the Center for Language Study, or CLS. In the past, DILS has supported students interested in learning Choctaw, Inupiaq, Lak Lakȟóta, Navajo, Salish, and Tohono O’odham, according to Nelleke Van Deusen-School, Director of CLS. While many indigenous students opt to take classes through the NALP instead because it offers an actual class structure, high demand through DILS can bolster petitions for an official language class to be offered through Yale. This spring, Yale piloted an American Sign Language course in part due to the fact that 117 students enrolled in its DILS offering over an eight-year period.

Getting a language recognized at Yale is no small task. The process begins when CLS considers a proposal and consults with the department that would offer the language. Next, CLS assesses demand and requests resources from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Office. If resources are approved, the Course of Study Committee approves individual pilot courses so that Yale can see if they can offer enough levels in the language to fulfill the language requirement. The full program then goes before a vote of Yale College faculty, completing the process.

Currently, students within the NACC are actively petitioning CLS for language classes, continuing efforts from years past. While faculty members in the department were hesitant to comment on the issue, Vee Cangiano, Coordinator of DILS, cites the relatively low demand. According to Cangiano, the number of students taking ASL over the last eight years was “two to three times the demand for all Native American languages combined.” 

“It’s an American value to give everyone the right to decide for themselves, but this right was never given to Native Americans,” said Wilhelm Meya, Chairman of the Lakota Language Consortium.

Another concern expressed by administrators is the dearth of college-level textbooks and curriculum for indigenous languages. Organizations such as the Lakota Language Consortium, or LLC, are working to address this issue. LLC is a nonprofit working to revitalize the Lakȟóta language through writing textbooks, producing curricula, and offering summer immersion programs. They have helped universities like the Universities of North and South Dakota set up their Lakȟóta language departments and are reworking a textbook for the postsecondary level. 

“It’s an American value to give everyone the right to decide for themselves, but this right was never given to Native Americans,” said Wilhelm Meya, Chairman of the Lakota Language Consortium. “They were here before the Europeans and had over five hundred languages spoken alongside histories, cultures, and prayers that were all embedded within their languages. Nearly a hundred years of institutionalized policies forced them to conform to English. No one is going to deny the power and utility of English, but you can’t take away the right to their indigenous language from them.”

For some indigenous students, the university’s failure to grant credit for Native languages adds insult to injury: many of them come from under-resourced schools that can’t offer foreign language classes. On the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation, Blatt says, her high school only had ten teachers spread over 120 high school students. As such, there weren’t enough teachers for her high school to offer foreign language courses. Pourier says that while indigenous students are “anything but a single story,” those who grew up on reservations often deal with culture shock alongside the usual demands made of Yale students. As a result of centuries of colonial policies enacted by the U.S. government, Native American communities are some of the poorest in the nation –– Pine Ridge Reservation has an 80 percent unemployment rate, according to Al-Jazeera.

“Coming here made me realize how important it is to hold onto what I have. My culture is dying, and my refusal to learn something as simple as the language is a contribution to the death of it,” Blatt said.

Unlike Pourier, Blatt didn’t start self-studying her native language, Cree, until getting to Yale. As she sits cross-legged on the wine-colored armchair in our common room, she explains that her mother attended an Indian boarding school with the mantra “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” As such, her mother was hesitant when Gabriella began join  Facebook groups like “Cree Simon Says,” which offers one hour lessons each day through Facebook Live. 

“On the reservation, I was surrounded by my culture,” Blatt said. “Coming here made me realize how important it is to hold onto what I have. My culture is dying, and my refusal to learn something as simple as the language is a contribution to the death of it,” she explains. 

Later that night, under the chandeliers of the Branford dining hall, Pourier explains to me that in the Lakȟóta nation, they don’t refer to it as “learning” their language. Rather, they call it “remembering.” He explains that members of his tribe see the language as part of their spirit, built into their genetic code. Speaking is merely the body catching up, remembering what has been lost.

He sits up, gesturing across the table at Rosales. “Whenever I speak Lakȟóta, it’s my spirit speaking to Jacob’s spirit. Whenever I speak English, it’s my body speaking to Jacob’s body. The ancestors’ spirits back home hear us, and they know we are out here.” He smiles, tugging on the strings of his pink hoodie. “They know that we are not lost. Whenever we speak Lakȟóta, it’s as if we are home.”

— Katherine Hu is a first-year in Ezra Stiles College.

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