Melvin Martin: The importance of keeping Indian languages alive
Just last Friday as I stood outside in the frigid south Minneapolis air, the elderly Caucasian woman approached me without the typical fear that most of her kinswomen display to one who is so visibly American Indian in appearance.

"Como estas, amigo?" ("How are you, friend?" in Spanish.)

To which I, in my limited Espanol, replied: "Lo siento, senora. Mi Espanol is muy pobre. Yo soy Indio Americano." Translation: "I am sorry, m'am. My Spanish is very poor. I'm American Indian."

The little old lady's face suddenly turned bright red with surprise, her rheumy eyes ablaze with the same exact display of insane curiosity by non-Indians at the mere mention of the term "American Indian" that has been directed towards me all my life.

"So, ya don't speak all that much Spanish? I thought ya were Mexican. Lots of 'em around here these days." She blurted out with an odd mixture of sadness and anger at the cruel vicissitudes of demographic change.

"What tribe ya from then?"

"I'm Santee Sioux on my father's side and Oglala Sioux on my mother's," I replied.

"Do ya speak Indian then?" One of the other questions regarding my Indian heritage that I am invariably asked by non-Indians overflowing with an attitude of extreme gratitude that they are finally in the presence of a real, live Indian!

"No, ma'am. My parents never taught us our language. Growing up in Los Angeles in the Sixties, we (to include my seven sisters and one brother) were told that we wouldn't need to speak Indian out there."

I could not bring myself to inform my inquisitive new acquaintance that the real reason that I could not speak Dakota or Lakota was because both of my parents (now deceased) had been brutally punished for speaking their language while attending various Indian boarding schools in South Dakota and Nebraska in the '40s.

My father's account of the sort of punishment meted out in those days for those unfortunate enough to get caught conversing in Dakota or other Indian languages (and he only disclosed this with me when he was pretty well liquored up):

"There were two offenses, son, that made the boarding school people really mad at us and that was wetting the bed and talking Indian. Not talking in Dakota was hard for me to do because I didn't speak any English until I was five years old, and that's when I was shipped off to boarding school for the first time. Every morning right after breakfast that was usually cold cornmeal mush with sour milk and giant worms or moths in it, they lined up all the bed wetters and anybody from the day before who was heard talking Indian and marched us all down to this old oak tree. Once there, we all had to take off our pants and underwear, us boys, and then we were hoisted up and over a tree branch with an old rope that was tied around both feet. There we were, hanging upside down and swinging in the air with our private parts showing for all the world to see."

"Then, this older white woman who said she used to be a nurse in the British army and who worked at the school as a dorm matron, would take out this horse whip that had been shortened to about four feet in length. There were nine leather tabs that had the old-fashioned thumb tacks stuck in them, the big brass ones, that were attached to this whip." (Note: I later found out that an instrument like this is known as a "Cat o' nine tails" and was used by the British Navy to flog sailors who had committed various offenses at sea.)

"This old English hag would then just proceed to slice our butts to hamburger with that whip. Until I was ten, I'd always pass out from the pain and some older boys would carry me back to the dormitory. I haven't spoken a word of Dakota since 1950, three years before you were born." My father died in 2003.

In researching this op-ed, I discovered that when the Civil War was at long last over, President Ulysses S. Grant moved to appoint delegations of so-called "Peace Commissioners" in an ill-fated effort to end the Indian conflicts in the American West. The conclusion reached by the commissioners was, in essence, that the "differences" of Indian languages was generating the entire "Indian problem," as follows:

"Now by educating the children of these tribes in the English language, these differences would have disappeared, and civilization would have followed at once...through sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment and thought; customs and habits are molded and assimilated in the same way, and thus in process of time the differences producing trouble would have been gradually the difference of language today lies two-thirds of our trouble...schools should be established, which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialect should be blotted out and the English language substituted."

It is all-too-apparent then that the U.S. federal government, in conjunction with assorted church entities, implemented a very active and aggressive policy of suppressing Indian languages that was in effect for at least 90 years or so. And this policy lies at the very heart of why I was never taught the Dakota language by my father (my mother was never physically abused for speaking Indian, although she was psychologically and emotionally terrorized at these schools as a preventive measure).

Are Indian languages dying out? Yes. Is a horrific history of government and church suppression of Indian language use a primary reason? Yes. And what I find particularly alarming is that only three Indian languages currently spoken in the U.S. are actually going to survive by 2050.

But it has been said that every cloud has a silver lining and for me personally, I take great joy and comfort in my recently acquired interest in learning the Dakota language (my father's forbidden tongue) in a wonderfully produced Dakota language primer (if you will) entitled "Taku Wadaka He?" ("What Do You See?") by Joanne Zacharias. Ms. Zacharias is a member of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community of Minnesota, and she has written this book "to serve as an aid for all of the children and adults who would like to learn the Dakota language, and as a creative way to share her knowledge of the Dakota people and language with others." Please refer to

The bottom line here: What was once lost has now been found. And my heartfelt thanks goes out to Joanne for giving of her talents and wisdom with her unique book - as it is indeed the Indian way of sharing, the Indian way of caring.

Melvin Martin is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. He can be reached at