Film Series: Hope for Language Revitalization

For the UAS Whalesong
With the Sustaining Indigenous Languages film series coming to a close as of Oct. 1, the importance of language revitalization has become a paramount topic. Alice Taff put together an amazing series of films to show on the UAS campus. The film series acts as a reminder that language extinction has been happening all over the world and that if the right steps are taken, then we can bring down the amount of languages going extinct.
Following my article about the first film, Language Matters, I was able to continue the series. The second film of the series was set in the Dakotas and portrayed the struggle to revitalize the Lakota language. It was titled Rising Voices, and it spanned over 2012-14. It was produced by Wilhem Meya, who graciously skyped with the film viewers and answered questions despite the late hour. It showed the current state of the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota. Once 300 languages existed. Now, only about half remain and only about 6,000 people are able to speak Lakota, despite the Lakota being the veritable stereotype of Native Americans, both in fashion and lifestyle. When you see the old Red Skins symbol, you are seeing the classic Lakota Warrior.
The Lakota lost their language in the late 1800s through both government misdeeds, such as Wounded Knee, and the 1879 school in Pennsylvania that instilled fear within Native children about speaking their language. The latter spurred hundreds of like assimilation schools. However, the Lakota also are able to see themselves as fully living their culture despite their own lack of personal language.
In this film we’re able to see the Lakota take steps to really revitalize their language and found pre-school based immersion schools. These attempts, however, are proving costly, as even the pre-school based immersion schools require government grants. They’ve also begun dubbing over Berenstein Bears in Lakota for the youth. Even though the Lakota are struggling to revitalize their language, we can see strong similarities between what they are doing and what we are doing here in Juneau on Lingít aaní.
The third and final film, shown on Thursday, Oct. 1, was titled First Language: The Race to Save Cherokee, and was produced by Walt Wolfram who also skyped with the audience. Wolfram and his crew were able to work with the Cherokee due to the linguistic research he was doing on the community’s English. After doing extensive research, he and his crew asked, “what can we give in return?” The Cherokee asked for a full length documentary on the immersion school and increased publicity to gain more speakers, and to help see a more realized revival.
Early on in this documentary, the viewers learn that today, the first of three generations speak Cherokee as a first language. Like many similar situations, the Cherokee were forced to give up their language and are now struggling to find a way to keep the language, the culture, alive. They currently have an immersion school that begins with infancy to 5th grade and they add a new grade every year. Parents who wish to enroll their children in this school are required to also take lessons, so that the children can be conversing constantly, even if it’s just simple phrases. A question did arise from the crowd on how the Cherokee are able to have such a rich immersion school and Wolfram answered that the school is actually funded by the Cherokee community themselves from the gaming (casino) industries.
The Cherokee community has begun to take significant steps, just as the Lakota have, towards total language revitalization, and here in our own Juneau community we can only hope for the same. If anything, we need to be teaching these languages earlier on and showing how important they are for a culture.
Ultimately, this film series was a great eye opener and constitutes a promise for what is to come in language revitalization. It isn’t happening in just these places, it’s happening all over the world, and slowly we may begin to really see these languages and cultures in full reality.
These languages are not dead, they’re still being spoken and lived, and, as in the Lakota language, “There are no good-byes, life is a cycle and a story that will continue.”

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