This is an open letter to the Standing Rock Community from Kevin Locke


As a Standing Rock tribal member who has been involved with the Lakota language for my entire life, I am saddened to see the decision by the Standing Rock Tribal Council to ban the Lakota Language Consortium and Jan Ullrich and Wil Meya who have a long history of contributing positively to the Lakota language documentation and revitalization. I have reasons to believe that this decision was ill-informed by a manipulative narrative full of propaganda.

If the proponents of this narrative were sincerely concerned with the future of our Lakota language, they would have called for a constructive dialogue. Instead, they resorted to spreading misinformation, gossip, manipulations, slander, unsubstantiated allegations, defamation, and ad-hominem attacks disguised as facts. The worst part is that the proponents of this narrative have actively sought to stigmatize all who voice different views. They have manipulated identity politics and decolonization rhetoric to label their opponents. I believe that this type of narrative is counter-productive to our shared goals of language revitalization.

I was discouraged to see that politics outweighed constructive conversations. I believe that the committees should have brought people like myself who work in language revitalization as well as Elders that have worked with LLC to provide perspective. It’s disappointing that no one asked for first-hand accounts of how the LLC materials were created. I could go on about how I’m feeling, but I wanted to clear up some misinformation and manipulation that I’ve seen floating around social media.

One of the biggest manipulations is the one about copyrighting the Lakota language. For more than a century, native and non-native authors who published about our language have copyrighted their books and no one has accused them of copyrighting the language. Because they didn’t! A language cannot be copyrighted. Joseph Flying By, Ella Deloria, Beatrice Medicine, David Rood, Albert White Hat, Eugene Buechel, Ivan Starr and many others have published copyrighted books to share the language and culture. And we have benefited from their work. In the same way, we benefit from LLC publishing the collaborative work of many first-language speakers.

The topic of intellectual property of people’s stories has also been manipulated greatly. I was present for many of the sessions where Jan interviewed Elders from across Lakota country I can testify that ethics and cultural protocols were followed. And I also know official Standing Rock representatives encouraged his language documentation work. Many Elders around Lakota country entered collaborative efforts with the LLC to create Lakota language content. I have been to dozens of interviews with Jan and I saw first-hand that people shared their stories willingly and happily knowing that LLC is a vehicle for making their stories accessible to learners. I believe we all had a clear understanding that we gave LLC permission to share the information but that it did not prevent us from continuing to tell our stories elsewhere.

I often think about our Standing Rock Elders from the turn of the 20th century who decided to share our sacred songs with the music researcher Francis Densmore. They believed the songs should be recorded for future generations. Had Densmore and our Elders not worked together on this project, we wouldn’t have had this wonderful record of our songs. Along the same line, the LLC worked with our contemporary elders and this resulted in creating a record of our language and making it accessible to all who wish to learn it.

I am very concerned that Standing Rock has asserted it should have ownership of the intellectual property of tribal members.

Like I said, I’ve been there when stories in our language have been shared and sometime later seen them used in lessons within the language materials and the dictionary. I was also present when native-speaking consultants vetted the translations or interpretations of words and sentences. I believe that the LLC has created the only truly reliable Lakota dictionary. All of us language learners have benefited from it, and generations of Lakota language learners will continue to benefit from it, as well as other LLC materials.

Moreover, as a lifelong learner of the Lakota language, I am familiar with all of the publications on our Lakota language, not only those published by LLC but also those by other publishers. For this reason, I find it beyond absurd when someone claims that LLC plagiarized existing language materials. Only someone who has not studied the Lakota Grammar Handbook in detail can state that it is a plagiarism of the Colorado Lakota Language Project textbooks. Or someone who purposely wants to manipulate the narrative!

Recordings of interviews between Jan Ullrich and Delores Taken Alive have also been at the center of the online debate. Again, I observed a number of occasions when Delores worked with Jan. They had a warm relationship and cherished their shared love for the language. I am aware that copies of the recordings have been shared with Delores herself as well as with her family. Along the same line, LLC has been working actively with our Culture and Language Institute toward storing the entire collection of recordings in our tribal archive. During a recent tribal council meeting, the representatives of the Culture and Language Institute acknowledged that the delay took place primarily on their end.

The question of orthography is another topic that has been manipulated by the social media campaign. The allegation that LLC bullied people into using an orthography is beyond absurd. Standing Rock tribal representatives, educators, and elders, such as Jesse Taken Alive and Delores Taken Alive, invited the LLC to Standing Rock specifically so that the schools could have a standard orthography and curriculum. The use of the orthography was supported by the tribal department of education and the tribal council who voted to partner with the LLC on it. The fact that the orthography has been chosen by our tribal schools and by the Dakota/Lakota Summer Institute and used by them for the past 16 years is clear evidence. Is Standing Rock going to act on a whim and abandon a 16-year-long trajectory started by our wise Elders? Two generations of Standing Rock children have been learning Lakota with this orthography already. Who will benefit if they have to switch orthographies suddenly? Is the idea that using five or more orthographies benefits our language? Nonsense! While LLC has encouraged a single orthography in Lakota education, it has also encouraged elders to continue to write as they are used to. The idea of a single orthography was firmly endorsed by the Summer Institute and many elders.

It should also be said that we, as Lakota people, have disagreed about how to write our language for decades prior to the existence of LLC. LLC did not create this problem. It simply offered one possible solution, and in my personal opinion, it is a good one. The Elders on the LLC board of directors selected one of the existing writing systems for their publications. I have been involved with the Lakota language learning and teaching for more than half a century, so I can confidently say that the introduction of the orthography and the reliable products written in it was one of the main factors contributing to the unprecedented increase of Lakota language learners, growing proficiency and accuracy in their pronunciation.

There are, of course, first language speakers and learners who promote or use other orthographies. It is their right to do so and we should all simply respect each other’s choices. We can have a constructive dialogue about the various advantages and disadvantages of different writing systems, but attacking or stigmatizing each other for our choice of orthography is not helpful.

In my view, LLC has facilitated valuable work on behalf of Lakota language documentation and revitalization. It contributed to increasing local capacity by organizing many educational events and programs, it wrote grants to fund scholarships and many of our tribal members have benefited from them. More than 80% of the LLC materials are digital and free. But there is a cost associated with printing books and that is why hard copies are not free. Costs have to be covered in order for materials to stay in print. Old materials are out of print because there is no one fighting to keep them printed. Our students deserve colored textbooks, not old photocopies of photocopies. Why would we want lower-quality materials in our classrooms? We should spend the money to have good material printed at a cost and I believe our young people deserve that. Our schools and tribes can partner with the LLC to find grants for funding more quality materials delivered to our schools at an affordable price.

LLC also encouraged and supported local initiatives. Anyone can work on creating language materials. We should be telling stories, making new songs, and finding more ways to use the language so we can be immersed in it. LLC doesn’t limit any of that. On the contrary, reliable reference tools, like the dictionary, make it possible.

Last thing about money, which comes up all the time. LLC applies for grants WITH Tribes. The funding pays Lakota language linguists, and First language speakers to document the language. Do we want to see our Elders and young people doing this work for free? It’s hard work, it takes a lot of time and effort. We should be encouraging these folks, not discouraging them by telling them they shouldn’t get paid for the work they do. It devalues the language and the work.

I had been involved with the Lakota language before the existence of the LLC and I have been there with the LLC from its very beginning. What I saw was that the LLC always promoted partnerships, collaboration, and focusing on the things that unite us in our shared goal of language revitalization.

The destructive social media campaign is doing the very opposite. It divides people, it stigmatizes language learners based on their choice of language materials to study from. It disrespects our elders by claiming they lacked agency in making good decisions. It attacks elders who don’t support its narrative. It spreads allegations based on nothing but gossip. The claim that Wil Meya stole a Winter Count is a good example. As a student at OLC, Wil was given permission to work under the supervision of Johnson Holy Rock to translate a video of Ben Marrowbone describing the Calico Wintercount. The translation was finished and provided to OLC, whereas the original videotape never left the OLC archive. Do we really want our tribal resolutions to be based on such gossip and unsubstantiated allegations?

We are all intelligent people and we need to work together to see our language revitalized. I hope as a Tribe we have more discussions before we make big decisions like this that impact so many people. I think that this destructive narrative has done much damage to the Lakota language revitalization movement here on Standing Rock.

If you’ve made it this far I want to encourage you to join me as I move forward with the LLC materials that have helped me become more fluent and literate in the language. One thing I think we can do is to enter into a positive discourse where more people’s voices can be heard. I’ve been working with others to come up with a code of conduct that I think folks entering these conversations should follow. I hope you’ll join me in being open to conversations like the ones outlined here.

I have also encouraged open-minded and constructive communication with community members.