A Intergenerational Fight Over Language in the Lakota Nation : Code Switch Many Lakota people agree: It's imperative to revitalize the Lakota language. But how exactly to do that is a matter of broader debate. Should Lakota be codified and standardized to make learning it easier? Or should the language stay as it always has been, defined by many different ways of writing and speaking? We explore this complex, multi-generational fight that's been unfolding in the Lakota Nation, from Standing Rock to Pine Ridge.

In Lakota Nation, people are asking: Who does a language belong to?

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B A PARKER, HOST:

Hey, everyone. You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm B.A. Parker, and today I have our senior producer, Christina Cala. Hey, Christina.

CHRISTINA CALA, BYLINE: Hey, Parker.

PARKER: All right, so what do you have for us today?

CALA: Two years ago, I started reading about a complex, multigenerational fight over language that's going on in the Lakota Nation.

WILHELM MEYA: The average speaker age of Lakota is over 75. There's just not a lot of time to, you know, fight internally when there's so much work to do. And this language is highly endangered.

CALA: A puzzle over ownership that can't fully be solved by the U.S. legal system.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're making things into property that perhaps should never be considered property in the first place.

CALA: And two educators who are desperately working with their language, but who have found themselves completely at odds.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: For me, like, the overlying mission is to do what's best for the language, and dividing our people is not what's best for the language.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: They're still selling my grandmother's sentences, our family's oral history and our oral knowledge.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CALA: And, Parker, to tell that story, I want to start with that grandmother whose legacy has been at the center of this fight. Her name is Delores Taken Alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DELORES TAKEN ALIVE: When I graduated from high school, my grandfather, he said, don't ever lose your Lakota language.

CALA: Delores was born on Standing Rock in South Dakota in 1933, and she was a fluent Lakota speaker. She cared about her language a lot, just like her grandfather taught her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D TAKEN ALIVE: Always remember and speak your Lakota language because that is your language, and then the white man's language will be your second language. And then he said to me, no matter how educated you are, in order for you to translate our Lakota language, which is ours, but if I speak my truest Lakota language, you won't be able to translate that, he said to me.

PARKER: Maintaining a language seems like a lot of responsibility.

CALA: It does. Delores learned and spoke Lakota in everyday life. While she was searching for chokecherries with her brother, plowing the lands for her dad, horseback riding, she was also practicing her language.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D TAKEN ALIVE: I used to say to my mother, mom, can I go sleep at grandpa's tonight? OK. And we used to sleep on the floor, and grandpa would - he would be telling us stories. So, you know, this oral tradition is very important.

CALA: Delores taught at different schools in Standing Rock for over 40 years. And at the age of 84, she started hosting a weekly radio show in Lakota. Her show was called "It's Good to Speak Lakota."

PARKER: I mean, that's a pretty apt title.

CALA: Yeah. She also recorded stories with a bunch of different organizations. She taped all 48 episodes of her radio show. She recorded with Standing Rock. She recorded with an education nonprofit called WoLakota Project. That's where this audio is from. She shared this one story about a time she talked to her sister in Lakota in front of a classroom full of students.

SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D TAKEN ALIVE: They were so amazed of how Lakota language could be so, you know, cherishing and yet so loving because you can speak it.

CALA: Not everyone had the same experience.

PARKER: Right. I mean, boarding schools existed in her lifetime, which we've talked about before on CODE SWITCH. They were basically designed to strip Indigenous kids of their culture, and their English-only policy is responsible for the extinction or endangerment of hundreds of native languages. And the U.S. policy protecting Indigenous languages in school wasn't passed until what?

CALA: 1990 - that's the Native American Language Act. Standing Rock wants Lakota to be the first language citizens speak at home by 2045. But according to one article, in 2020, they only counted 230 native Dakota and Lakota speakers in Standing Rock. That's down from 350 in 2006.

PARKER: So they have their work cut out for them.

CALA: Right. Which is partially why, even though Lakota is more of a culture of oral tradition, Delores worked hard to make the language more accessible in a bunch of different ways, and she was the perfect person to do that. According to the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas, she was considered, quote, "one of the most eloquent Lakota speakers of her time." Even other fluent speakers, when they had questions about the intricacies of their language, would say, Delores will know.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAN ULLRICH: Words can hardly describe the incredible contribution made to the dictionary by Delores Taken Alive.

CALA: So that's Jan Ullrich. He's a linguist from the Czech Republic who's been speaking Lakota for about 40 years. He stumbled on an old Lakota dictionary while the Czech Republic was still under Soviet rule, and he decided to start learning Lakota.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ULLRICH: (Speaking Lakota).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Lakota).

ULLRICH: (Speaking Lakota).

CALA: Jan worked with Delores and others to create a Lakota dictionary as a founder and head linguist for this influential nonprofit called the Lakota Language Consortium, or the LLC. That tape we heard is from a Lakota Language Consortium video.

PARKER: OK, so what is the Lakota Language Consortium?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CALA: So the LLC is made up of a team of mostly Native staff. We should clarify it's not actually an LLC in the corporate sense.

PARKER: That helps.

CALA: It's a nonprofit that's been around for 20 years. And aside from their Lakota dictionary, they publish books and host learning weeks with Lakota elders. Their mission is to revitalize Lakota by creating a new generation of Lakota speakers.

MEYA: The average speaker age of Lakota is over 75. There's just not a lot of time to, you know, fight internally when there's so much work to do. And this language is highly endangered.

CALA: That was Wilhelm Meya. He founded the LLC with Jan in 2004, and they ran it together for 20 years. Wilhelm was born in Austria but grew up in the States. He studied at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation. That's where he first started to learn Lakota and became deeply interested in Lakota culture. Jan and Wilhelm also founded, and still run, a larger nonprofit. It's called The Language Conservancy, and it works with over 50 other native languages. On the bottom of that website, there is a logo saying they have special consultive status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

PARKER: That sounds legit.

CALA: It does. They're definitely power players in the language preservation, revitalization space in a way, that kind of makes me think of RAE, Real Academia Espanola.

PARKER: Like the OED or Webster's.

CALA: Yeah. And with Lakota, the LLC has said they're not trying to be the one authority on the language, but they are trying to, quote, "create and maintain Lakota resources that are reliable, evidence-based, text corpus-based and that can be confidently referenced by Lakota language teachers and learners," end quote. And the New Lakota Dictionary is one of those resources.

PARKER: So are people actually using the dictionary to try to learn Lakota?

CALA: Some are. So I talked to Alex Fire Thunder a few times about his relationship with his language. Alex is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. And when Alex started seriously studying Lakota in 2013, he used the LLC dictionary. He remembers seeing it for the very first time and feeling overwhelmed.

ALEX FIRE THUNDER: As a beginner learner, that's a lot of words I have to learn, you know? But in retrospect, it makes you realize how complex and how rich our language is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CALA: Alex lives in Pine Ridge now, but he grew up in New York. And while he knew some Lakota words, he didn't speak it at home, really.

FIRE THUNDER: My mom is a speaker, but she didn't teach me or my siblings to speak Lakota 'cause everybody else spoke English. No, I just think that it wasn't practical. And it's a similar story to my generation here on the res as well. English just kind of took over. I remember, like, talking to my older brother when we were teenagers - like, we should learn to speak Lakota so that we can talk to mom in Lakota. How cool would that be?

CALA: At age 22, he signed up for Lakota classes.

FIRE THUNDER: And so right away, everything I would learn in class, I would call my mom after and, you know, try to practice. She would laugh at me when I would say things funny or say things wrong. I'd be like, (speaking Lakota) and all, like, robotic and, like, syllable by syllable. And so she'd laugh, and I'd say, what? What's wrong with that? (Speaking Lakota) is this evening. (Speaking Lakota) or this evening. (Speaking Lakota) - come in. And then she say, it's (speaking Lakota). So (speaking Lakota) is the fast way of pronouncing that. Like, (speaking Lakota) turns into (speaking Lakota).

CALA: After a few years of studying, Alex became a Lakota language teacher himself. And then in 2017, he took a job with the Lakota Language Consortium as the deputy director.

PARKER: Now, what does the deputy director of a language nonprofit do?

CALA: He runs classes at the LLC Summer Institute, teaches, works as a linguist, hosts a podcast.

PARKER: Of course.

CALA: Yep. He records elders in their communities and documents previously undocumented words.

FIRE THUNDER: Some of which are old, some of them are new, but words that are used by our speakers that have never been written before.

PARKER: Well, dang, he's working as hard as Delores.

CALA: He is. And he said, in the latest edition - the third edition of the New Lakota Dictionary - they added roughly 10,000 more words than the first one.

FIRE THUNDER: And so, like, one example is pajamas. Pajamas is - in the dictionary it's always been - I think it's (speaking Lakota) or istinma hayapi, which just means sleeping clothes. But my mom was like, I never heard that. And she gave it to me, (speaking Lakota). And so then I was like, that's not in the dictionary. And then I asked around some other elders, and now it's in the dictionary - (speaking Lakota).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FIRE THUNDER: It makes me feel proud. You know, being the first generation to not be the speaker, it makes me feel like I'm mending, like, some kind of hoop that's been broken. Not to be cheesy - I know that's usually - you know, a lot of our people like to talk about the medicine wheel and hoops and stuff like that. But it is - you know, the circle is a sacred symbol to our people, and it really is meaningful to continue that cycle.

CALA: Continuing that cycle is especially important as the number of native Lakota speakers continues to shrink.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D TAKEN ALIVE: I always pray to Creator. I say, give me more life. Give me health. Give me good health. I'm still needed. I can still help. You know, I want to live more. You know, like, that - 'cause I can help my people, my students, my (speaking Lakota).

CALA: Delores Taken Alive died in 2020, but so much of her work lives on in recordings, in books, in stories that she shared so the next seven generations can keep learning. It lives on in people who decided to take up Delores' mantle as well.

PARKER: Like Alex?

CALA: Well, yes and no. It depends on who you ask because, Parker, as you know, nothing in life is ever that clean or easy.

RAY TAKEN ALIVE: They're still selling my grandmother's sentences, our family's oral history and our oral knowledge. So have we been given my grandmother's stuff back yet?

CALA: That's coming up.

PARKER: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKER: Parker.

CALA: Christina.

PARKER: CODE SWITCH.

CALA: So, Parker, before the break, we heard about Delores Taken Alive's work to keep the Lakota language alive. And she worked tirelessly to do that, including with the Lakota Language Consortium, who she believes had the same mission as her. But not everyone shares that belief. In fact, some people thought that they saw something much more sinister going on.

NICOLE DUCHENEAUX: A lot of people in Indian Country, including myself, thought that Wilhelm Meya and Jan Ullrich were sent from heaven for us.

CALA: This is Nicole E. Ducheneaux. She's Cheyenne River Lakota. And in June 2023, in a hearing room in Pierre, S.D., she was talking about her language.

DUCHENEAUX: Two preeminent linguists who were willing to travel thousands of miles away to our reservations here in South Dakota and donate their time, donate their time and expertise to helping us save our endangered Lakota language. And we as Indian people thought that they viewed our language and our culture as a shared resource that could be neither bought nor sold.

CALA: Nicole was representing Ray Taken Alive, Delores Taken Alive's grandson, and Nicole was raised defense through a six-hour hearing with the South Dakota Education Department.

DUCHENEAUX: Ray learned in 2021 that, in fact, our ancient and sacred Lakota language that had barely survived small pox, barely survived war and forced assimilation, and which Ray's grandmother, Delores Taken Alive, had innocently and proudly shared with Jan and Wil for the good of her people, had been copyrighted by the LLC. Ray's grandma's image had been copyrighted by the LLC. The way that Ray saw it, our mother tongue and wisdom that were passed down by his ancestors now belonged to Jan and Wilhelm. And Ray doesn't think that's right. He thinks that's illegal. He thinks the LLC is stealing our language and our culture.

R TAKEN ALIVE: For too long in language revitalization, our people have been removed from our language. It's constantly tried to be separated.

CALA: That last voice is Ray Taken Alive.

PARKER: Right. We heard him right before the break, and it sounded like he was not that thrilled about what the Lakota Language Consortium is doing.

CALA: He is not a fan. And you heard a little about why from his lawyer. Here's how Ray explains it.

R TAKEN ALIVE: So they're always talking about the language. The language is dying. The language - we need to save the language. But those kinds of conversations, we forget the people, the people who speak the languages. So trying to separate the language from the people, you can use that to scare people, to diagnose someone with a disease, and then you can sell them the cure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R TAKEN ALIVE: Hello.

CALA: Hey, Ray.

Ray and I talked multiple times, so some of his tape might sound a little different.

R TAKEN ALIVE: How's it going?

CALA: Good. How are you? What are you up to today?

R TAKEN ALIVE: I'm doing good. We're going to head out on the river today - later on, when it warms up.

CALA: Ray is a Standing Rock citizen. He teaches Lakota language at the McLaughlin Public School in McLaughlin, S.D. He's also the Lakota language and culture coordinator for his school, which means he helps make curriculum.

R TAKEN ALIVE: That was always my dream, to work in a school.

CALA: And Ray comes from a long line of teachers.

PARKER: Like Delores.

CALA: Yeah, which is one reason why he's passionate about helping young Lakota people learn to speak Lakota as part of their everyday lives.

R TAKEN ALIVE: I believe that our culture and our language is life-giving. I want to give them the tools to dream and do whatever they want to do.

CALA: And Ray has spent the past three years fighting the Lakota Language Consortium.

PARKER: Wait, Christina. It sounds like Ray has the same goal as the LLC - to keep teaching the language.

CALA: I mean, he does to a certain degree, but there are some key differences in how Ray and the LLC conceptualize their work. So Ray has three main issues with the LLC that have to do with messaging, authority and ownership.

PARKER: Ooh. OK, yes. Let's get into it.

CALA: So when it comes to messaging, Ray is asking, is the threat of the Lakota language dying off, being used to convince people to get on board with the LLC's learning system? Like, is the LLC catastrophizing?

PARKER: That's what he was referring to when it comes to selling the disease and the cure.

CALA: Yep. And one other key piece of that is selling. In order to sell something, you need people to want to buy it, which is why he cares about authority.

PARKER: OK.

CALA: So, as I said before, the Lakota Language Consortium materials standardize one clear way to speak and write Lakota. Like, this is the vocabulary; these are the diacritical marks; this is how the grammar is structured.

PARKER: I could see how that could feel like the best chance to revitalize the language, to standardize it?

CALA: Yeah. That's what supporters of the LLC would say for sure. This work is needed now, and the LLC has the resources and the know-how to do it. But when it comes to who has authority, Ray and others are asking, like, with a living language that doesn't have one clear, standardized writing system already, who gets to decide the correct way to write and speak the language, especially when there are so many regional and generational differences? But even more fundamentally, some Lakota people feel like maybe they don't need one standardized writing system. A bunch already exists, and having a variety of systems and materials has worked for some people, like Ray.

R TAKEN ALIVE: What I use personally is I typed up - me and a friend of mine, we typed up all the texts that we could basically find, and I keep it in this huge PDF document.

CALA: He says a lot of people don't know how many resources exist from tribal colleges, elders, tribes, curricula, dictionaries, books. They're all out there.

R TAKEN ALIVE: One thing I like to do is I get on the online databases or Google Scholar or whatever, and I look for whatever I can find on there. And then, also, I get on eBay.

CALA: He found some cassette tapes that way.

R TAKEN ALIVE: I bought them, and then I put them in this old radio that my dad gave me. And I played it, and it was the tapes to these Black Hills State University language curriculum.

PARKER: OK. Christina, I totally understand what Ray is doing and why it feels more organic to the way the Lakota language has actually worked throughout time. But having one place you go to and know that you're learning the right things might just be more convenient? Like, not everyone is going to have the time and motivation to find cassette tapes on eBay or know how to use cassette tapes.

CALA: I mean, that's a good point. And actually, one elder who worked with the LLC remarked that two generations of Lakota language students on Standing Rock have learned using LLC materials. At this point, maybe removing them would be detrimental to those students' learning. For people like Alex Fire Thunder, who lives on Pine Ridge, having one standardized system has been incredibly helpful in learning Lakota.

FIRE THUNDER: In the LLC materials, every word has the stress marked where it goes. So you know. There's no guesswork. And that really developed a confidence in my speaking.

CALA: So this stuff works for some people. But, Parker, people like Ray are really worried about trading convenience for ownership. And the bigger question here is if Lakota people are involved in making LLC materials, why should this separate company have control over those materials, not the elder speakers or tribes? And if the LLC controls those recordings, etc., does the language still belong to the Lakota people? And this has become another giant part of this discussion.

MEYA: A language cannot be copyrighted in general. It's not a thing that is like that.

CALA: That's Wilhelm Meya again. Remember, he's one of the original founders of the LLC, and technically, you cannot copyright a language, but there are ways even that basic fact gets complicated...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CALA: ...Because you can copyright materials in that language. And maybe if you copyright enough materials of something like Lakota that doesn't have a standardized version...

PARKER: You can end up owning a language.

CALA: Essentially, in that you can control how it's taught or learned, who has access to materials. There's, like, a broader discussion about this all over the world, but I want to share one example. So something like this happened with the Penobscot Nation in Maine, where one linguist basically ended up copyrighting so much of their language materials that it was pretty much like he owned it, and that ownership didn't go back to the tribe once that linguist died. The way copyright law works, it will eventually go into the public domain. And that's not what a lot of tribes want, either. So going back to the LLC, they control more than just the written works that they've copyrighted. When they record Lakota speakers, they have speakers sign release forms.

PARKER: That's how it usually goes, right?

CALA: It is. But for a while, the LLC was on the far end of the spectrum because until Alex Fire Thunder joined the organization, the LLC was the sole owner of the materials they gathered. Now speakers have more choice when it comes to who ultimately owns the recording. But before, through those previous forms, the LLC was asserting ownership over an initial recording, as well as whatever was shared and whatever was developed from that original source material, including things like stories that Ray's grandmother told or pictures the LLC shot of Delores.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

R TAKEN ALIVE: I was completely shocked. I was really hurt by that. How can an outside entity keep my grandmother from me?

CALA: Ray, as the appointed spokesman for his family on the issue, has been trying to get his grandmother's materials from the LLC.

R TAKEN ALIVE: What I want is all of the intellectual property rights given back to our family - all the audio, the recordings, the pictures, the licensing, everything. The full assignment of rights being given back to our family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CALA: The LLC says they did share Delores' recordings with Ray's family. According to a post on their website, they returned recordings to Ray's family in September of 2020 and again in September of 2021. But the more fundamental point of tension seems to be that Ray's version of getting those materials back and the LLC's version differ. Ray says the LLC gave him copies. He wants the originals. Ray says he wants Delores' voice and her image to be protected under federal and tribal law so no one can exploit or make money off of them, because without the originals, it's still someone else's call about what can be done with the materials, who can use them, how they can be referenced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ULLRICH: We cannot withdraw the copyright because unless we are given a perpetual license to continue to use the material because the dictionary...

CALA: During the hearing, Jan said the LLC is a publishing house and they've published their dictionary, their grammar book, their textbooks. They do offer some materials for free, like their dictionary app, but withdrawing copyrights would mean stopping the presses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ULLRICH: And who's going to benefit from that? Are the schools going to benefit from the fact that we have to stop printing the dictionary that Delores Taken Alive wanted to be printed for posterity?

FIRE THUNDER: We sell it because it costs money to print. And people - you know, people buy them for our schools. They have to buy textbooks and things. But really, I cannot put a price tag on it for you. It's invaluable to me.

CALA: These language materials are invaluable to Alex, but Delores' recordings are invaluable to Ray, too.

R TAKEN ALIVE: You know, my grandma would say things and she would give me a word and she'd say, (speaking Lakota). That one's not in the dictionary (laughter). And I wish I could hold on to those. I wish I would have really sunk my teeth into those and held on to those.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKER: So what's he doing to get his grandma back?

CALA: So for the past three years, Ray has been pushing some boundaries. He asked the LLC in private messages and emails, as well as through social media to stop using Delores' materials. He shared videos calling out the LLC and publicizing what's happening. And in October 2021, Ray confronted the LLC at an Indigenous education conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

R TAKEN ALIVE: That's my grandma. You don't have permission to do this.

CALA: Ray grabs stacks of pamphlets with Delores' image on them from an LLC table. This was all recorded. He posted that video online, which wound up ruffling some feathers. All of this escalated to a cease-and-desist letter from the LLC and later, a 23-page complaint against Ray with the South Dakota Education Department's ethics board.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHEW MINSKY: Mr. Taken Alive will testify that my clients were improperly displaying an image of his grandmother, Delores Taken Alive, on two of their sets of materials.

PARKER: Which is how we ended up at that ethics hearing in Pierre, S.D.

CALA: Yeah. That was the LLC's lawyer you just heard, Matthew Minsky, laying out their case against Ray. In the most extreme scenario for Ray, because of the LLC's complaint, Ray could have lost his teaching license.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MINSKY: When he decided to create his own set of Lakota learning materials and introduced them at McLaughlin School District, plainly, Mr. Taken Alive's conduct constitutes theft. Since this occurred in Nebraska, we have to...

PARKER: Hold up. The LLC was accusing Ray of theft for making language materials with copyrighted LLC stuff?

CALA: It sure sounds like it, which was one of Ray's big issues from the beginning. The idea that he could be given his grandmother's stuff back but still not be entitled to use it.

R TAKEN ALIVE: That's like saying we gave you your land back and then accusing you of trespassing. Did you really get your land back?

PARKER: This is like Shakespearean intrigue, the theft, the betrayal, the fight over a family legacy. But, Christina, after hearing these different people express their perspectives, I guess I'm wondering, like, who's right?

CALA: Yeah.

PARKER: Is Ray justified in wanting his grandmother's materials back and wanting the tribe to have control over the Lakota language, or is the LLC justified in wanting to hold tight to these copyrights so that they can continue producing language materials that do benefit communities?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CALA: So it depends on how you look at that. You can analyze it in legal terms, in practical terms, in ethical terms.

JANE ANDERSON: One of the challenges of copyright law is that we're working within a realm of property and making things into property that perhaps should never be considered property in the first place.

CALA: That's Jane Anderson. She's a lawyer who specializes in copyright law and issues of Indigenous sovereignty.

ANDERSON: And so copyright law upholds a certain kind of property logic, and that runs counter to how Indigenous peoples and communities understand their language materials, for instance, not as property, but as cultural gifts that continue from the ancestors into the future. That's not property.

CALA: So, Parker, there are laws and regulations that were specifically designed to protect Indigenous cultures. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems, literatures. Then there is the Native American Language Act of 1990, and it states that it's U.S. policy to promote the rights of Native Americans to use, practice and develop Native American languages. And tribal nations also have their own protections and their own laws. In the case of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, where Ray is a citizen, where Delores was a citizen, there's a language resolution that was passed by Tribal Council. Resolution 15022, in which Standing Rock asserts, quote, "inherent retained intellectual property rights," end quote, in perpetuity. So forever. For anything related to the language and anything recorded or photos taken of any tribal member and their descendants.

PARKER: That seems pointed.

CALA: It is.

ANDERSON: Copyright law really was not developed as a tool to support oral cultures or Indigenous people generally. It was a tool to support written cultures and to exploit knowledge. There's already an inherent imbalance that sits within the law.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CALA: So all of these questions about, you know, who controls the Lakota language, who does it belong to, maybe it's not just a legal problem.

ANDERSON: It's an ethical, it's an equity, it's a historical justice problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CALA: This conversation around ownership is happening in a lot of different spaces, and it's changing quickly. Jane noted that in asking who owns the language, we're maybe using the wrong kinds of words and concepts.

PARKER: OK. So what would she suggest instead?

CALA: Stewardship. And with stewardship, a different combination of people can be part of decision-making. Tribal council, elders, they can all weigh in with different levels of authority, which leads to a different kind of relationship, but also different kinds of questions.

ANDERSON: How do you look after the ecosystem around language, language speaking, cultural knowledge that comes from language, that is a lot bigger than just, you know, who owns this tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKER: So where does this leave Ray and Alex right now?

CALA: So Ray got to keep his teaching license. Going back to that hearing.

PARKER: All right.

CALA: Yeah, he's still doing curriculum work. He's actually working with Marvel to create a Lakota language dub of "The Avengers" through Standing Rock. But Ray still doesn't have the rights to his grandmother's materials, so he's still working with Standing Rock to figure out a way to get them. Like, that very small and also very big fight is very much still happening.

PARKER: All right. What about Alex?

CALA: Alex is now the executive director of the LLC. So he's the head of that organization and has the most individual power to change things. And his tribe supports the LLC's work. The Oglala Sioux Tribe passed a resolution in January seeking funding for LLC programming. But Alex is now dealing with the same big questions that Jan was about how to both share ownership and maintain copyrights so you can print materials.

PARKER: So Ray and Alex are kind of at an impasse.

CALA: They kind of are at an impasse. And in a way, so is the language. You know, for all of the work that Alex and Ray are both doing individually, the number of fluent Lakota speakers has gone down, and that's frustrating.

R TAKEN ALIVE: We wouldn't be in this situation with our language if it weren't for the colonial systems that have been imposed on us. For me, like, the overlying mission is to do what's best for the language. And dividing our people is not what's best for the language.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CALA: You know, we've been talking to the younger generation who is part of this story now, but all of this makes me think of Delores again and some of what her grandfather told her.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WOLAKOTA PROJECT")

D TAKEN ALIVE: Don't ever lose your Lakota language. Always remember and speak your Lakota language.

PARKER: I feel like Ray and Alex are both kind of holding fast to that.

CALA: In their own ways, they are, but they're focusing on different parts of the message. Alex is focused on the don't lose it part. He's doing everything he can to make sure that the Lakota language is codified and written down and preserved, so it can never be lost. But for Ray, it seems like the focus is on the idea that Lakota, this is his language, and this language, the Lakota language, it belongs to the Lakota people. Here's Delores again.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WOLAKOTA PROJECT")

D TAKEN ALIVE: No matter how educated you are, in order for you to translate our Lakota language, which is ours, but if I speak my truest Lakota language, you won't be able to translate that.

CALA: And that's worth remembering, too, that different people, Jan, Wilhelm, Jane, you, me, we can all think about the situation and try to make sense of it and debate who's right and who's wrong, but maybe there's a truer, deeper, more fundamental part of the story that we'll never be able to quite capture because it's not ours and we don't have the words to hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CALA: And that's our show. You can follow us on Instagram at @nprcodeswitch. If email is more your thing, ours is codeswitch@npr.org. And subscribe to the podcast on the NPR app or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also subscribe to the CODE SWITCH newsletter by going to npr.org/codeswitchnewsletter.

PARKER: Just wanted to give a quick shout-out to our CODE SWITCH+ listeners. We appreciate you, and thank you for being a subscriber. Subscribing to CODE SWITCH+ means getting to listen to all of our episodes without any sponsor breaks, and it also helps support our show. So if you love our work, please consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch.

CALA: This episode was produced by Xavier Lopez, Courtney Stein and me. It was edited by Leah Donnella and Courtney Stein. Our engineer was Robert Rodriguez.

PARKER: And a big shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive - Jess Kung, Dalia Mortada, Schuyler Swenson, Cher Vincent, Veralyn Williams, Gene Demby, and Lori Lizarraga.

CALA: Special thanks to Kevin Volkl, Graham Lee Brewer, Johannes Doerge, Kimimila Locke, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler, and Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. And we just wanted to acknowledge Nicole E. Ducheneaux, who died in 2023, but whose work continues to shape these critical conversations around Indigenous sovereignty.

PARKER: I'm B.A. Parker.

CALA: I'm Christina Cala.

PARKER: Hydrate.

CALA: Hasta pronto.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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