Learning Lakota

This post, from a few years back, is on my mind this Thanksgiving.

When I was a kid, every summer my father morphed into a stoic Sioux warrior whose job it was to toughen up his wimpy offspring so they’d become mighty braves. On weekends we were marched up mountain trails carrying heavy backpacks irregardless of the temperature.  Then we were told to catch a fish or go without dinner. Sleep was on mattresses we made of pine needles. My father would make statements like:  “When I become a burden to the tribe, I will walk out into the desert with only the clothes on my back and never return.”  Tribe?  Good grief.  You’d have thought he was really a Native American.  He was not.


Hand-painted dancer from Pine Ridge Reservation circa 1920.

He was the son of a man who ran Indian reservations throughout the Dakotas and Montana and thus spent most of his summers learning to hunt and fish and ride horses along side the Sioux.  Both my father and grandfather wore elaborately beaded buckskin jackets and bolo ties made from arrow heads.

Peace Rug

Peace rug, age unknown

I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a Scottish man working for the Indian Service at a time when the Sioux still rode horses. From what I’ve heard, he tried his best in many bad circumstances but in the end the job killed him.  Or it might have been my grandmother.  She was not noted for her humanitarian instincts. She was noted for her prickly disdain for Catholics and all non-Norwegians. But, because she was an English teacher, Grandfather convinced her to tutor Native American children.IMG_0582Every now and then she’d send us a few Indian Life books like the one above which were used to teach the children to read english using their own folklore. My favorites were The Pine Ridge PorcupineThe Slim Butte Raccoon and The Grass Mountain Mouse.  In these stories every creature had its place and purpose in the world.  Even trees and mountains and streams should be respected and worshiped. The world, as the Indian knew it, was not owned by man; man was owned by the world.

Sadly only one of the primers survived my crazy childhood: 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 Sioux 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.

So today, I’m grateful for the reminders I have of Native American culture.  I wish this was a day when Native Americans were thankful that their charity towards refugees from a far off land had been richly rewarded.  Maybe someday.

4 thoughts on “Learning Lakota

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