TWO TRIBES MEET
TWO LANGUAGES BECOME FRIENDS
Fort Yates, ND July 1, 2012
Thunder and bucketing rain broke over Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, ND on June 20, 2012, just as 25 Native Maori from New Zealand pulled up in their tour bus. Both the group inside the bus and their Lakota Sioux hosts – who waited in the field behind the college to welcome them – held this unexpected storm as an auspicious sign: Thunder Beings had escorted the Maori onto Lakota land.
The Maori Natives in the bus were all language activists, committed to the revival and elevation of their indigenous culture through the study and use of its language. Maori, a tribal people of New Zealand, had endured assimilation and cultural suppression just like Native Americans. The movement for Maori language – and cultural – recognition and revitalization began in earnest in New Zealand more than 20 years ago and has succeeded to the point where Maori is now one of the country’s official languages; interpreters are provided when Maori is spoken in the country’s Parliament; immersion schools and other language education institutions are well-established; there is a Maori-language television channel and news network. The New Zealand national rugby team performs a Maori haka before their matches, showing the opposing team their unity and fierce intent to win any battle.
The Maori visiting Lakota Country came to bring this spirit of determination and the experience of success to the Lakota Summer Institute (LSI), a three-week event for Native Lakota language teachers. LSI also attracts non-teachers from the nine Lakota Sioux reservations in South and North Dakota, and even Lakota from other states, to classes offering in-depth study and practice in speaking, reading and writing the Lakota language. LSI has become known as a “boot camp” for Lakota language and culture, with attendance numbers growing every year.
LSI and the Lakota language revitalization movement it anchors are in fact modeled after the Maori revitalization movement. Since the early days of the Lakota Language Consortium, which coordinates LSI and publishes a language textbook series, there has been much conversation between Lakota language activists and Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo, the pre-eminent Maori language and culture educational organization. The busload of activists made their journey from New Zealand to North Dakota in order to meet the Lakota activists face to face, and tell them: “We regained our language, and so can you.”
The Maori ranged in age from 17to 70. They were doctors, teachers, students, media professionals and retirees. Once the rain had stopped, they stepped from their tour bus onto the greening prairie. They assembled in formation and began to advance across the field, chanting the song that would introduce them to the host tribe.
The haka is a group dance with vigorous movements: foot-stamping and aggressive, exaggerated facial expressions. The vocals are rhythmic shouts in unison, usually led by a woman soloist.
When they reached the midpoint of the field, they stopped. The Lakota approached the Maori and shook hands, then the entire group formed an enormous circle and a drumbeat began. The circle became a simple dance for the whole group.
The Lakota who attend LSI are mostly language teachers in the various tribal school systems. LSI was conceived as a way to give these teachers effective and up-to-date skills in second-language education. This rigorous attention to pedagogical standards is intended to prove that Lakota can in fact be taught – that the methods that work for teaching Russian or Arabic can and do work with Lakota.
The Maori visit to LSI was long-planned, and reflects the steady growth of LSI into a magnet for the growing number of Lakotas who are passionate about learning their language. The Maori hoped to reveal the world of possibilities open to Lakota learners, as long as they stay focused on fluency and don’t give up. All of the Maori stated that they had achieved fluency while learning Maori as a second language.
Timoti Karetu, the Director of Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo, said in his remarks after the welcoming dance, “Our Maori group and our Lakota hosts are very similar in that they are all people who are deeply committed to the language and for the most part represent a young generation of people. The only difference is that the Maori have achieved fluency, whereas the Lakota are still on the way. Our hope is that our fluency will help inspire Lakota activists to achieve the same thing.”
Although the visit was short – just a day and a half – the Maori activists were able to meet LSI participants in a special class where they answered questions about regaining their tribal language.
Has your success in language revitalization strengthened your traditional culture?” “How did you involve native speakers in the community in revitalization efforts?” Was there a period when learning was more difficult than now? What were the stages?” “How old are the youngest Maori speakers?”
Other questions revealed Lakota concerns about how speaking the language can address socio-economic problems; about non-indigenous people learning and speaking a tribal language; community prejudices against learning from books; the influence of English on the ancestral language; coining new words for the modern world; and the role of schools in revitalizing the language.
Lakota and Maori participants were equally impressed with each other’s commitment, and many believed that the trip marked the beginning of a long and deep friendship between two cultures and regions – “Lakota Country” and “Aotearoa”
Timoti Karetu was adopted into the Lakota tribe & given a Lakota naming ceremony. The Lakota presented all of the Maori with gifts of sage, sweetgrass, star quilts, hats, tee shirts, and gift bags -- but the Maori definitely out-danced everyone! The group performed three different, fully choreographed hakas – for their arrival, for Karetu’s naming ceremony, and on the evening of the Lakota-language play.
Kevin Locke, a LSI instructor and world-traveled Lakota performer, gave a Hoop dance at the end to see them off – which was a joyful end to an extremely positive experience.
The only regret for both hosts and guests was that the visit was so brief. Both sides wished for more casual socializing and getting to know each other.
Interactive information about the Maori and Lakota languages is available at the Maori Dictionary Online and the Lakota Dictionary Online web portals.