Learning Lakota

My father spent much of his youth on Indian reservations in Montana and the Dakotas.    He was not an Indian but Scotch Irish still you’d never know by the way he talked, constantly making statements like “when I become a burden to the tribe, I’ll head out into the desert with only the clothes of my back.”  To which we would roll our eyes and say “sure Dad!”


Hand-painted dancer from Pine Ridge Reservation circa 1920.

He wore elaborately beaded buckskin jackets and bolo ties made from arrow heads.  He hunted, fished and loved camping trips during which we lived off nature, fishing for our dinner, making mattresses from pine needles and sleeping under the stars.  I called those camping trips “death marches.”  I still can’t stand mountain trout.

Peace Rug

Peace rug, age unknown

The reason my father spent so much time on reservations was  his father, who worked for the federal government and ran Indian reservations (whatever the heck that means), the most famous being Pine Ridge Lakota, the site of the Wounded Knee massacre.

I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a white man working for the Indian Service at a time when the Sioux still rode horses. His expectations must have been high for he brought with him my grandmother, an English teacher, hoping she would teach the Indian children to read and write.  She may have tried, I don’t know.  She wasn’t noted for her humanitarian urges. She was known for her prickly disdain for Catholics and all non-Norwegians.  I do know that for Christmas and birthdays I would get a copy of  one of the Indian Life Reader books, primers IMG_0582featuring a translation of the Lakota (Sioux) language into English.  My favorites were The Pine Ridge PorcupineThe Slim Butte Raccoon and The Grass Mountain Mouse.  Sadly only one of the primers survived: Sioux Cowboy.


Part of the Lakota alphabet as translated by Emil Afraid-of-Hawk

I tried to teach myself Lakota, fantasizing that if my grandparents ever invited me to visit them on the reservation I would be able to speak with the Indian girls and boys in their own language.  I didn’t know that by the time I started getting the primers my grandmother had already left my grandfather at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and was living primarily with my great grandmother in Fargo.

Oh and my father did make good on his promise, though not in a way any of us suspected.

Lakota text

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