‘Keep that fire going:’ Nonprofit aims to preserve Lakota language and culture

DENVER — November is Native American Heritage Month, and the first weekend of the month coincided with a class in Denver aimed at preserving and protecting the Lakota language.
The two-day session was hosted by a nonprofit organization called the Lakota Language Consortium, which says Native American languages “in the United States are in the middle of a deadly crisis that has been unfolding for the last 400 years.”

The group reports that the last generation of first-language speakers is currently in their 70s and that the language has not been taught to the next generation since the 1950s. According to the Lakota Language Consortium, less than 100 of 500 Native Americans are still spoken. However, Lakota is one of only eight Native American languages with more than 5,000 speakers, meaning it’s in the top 5% of surviving languages.

“It’s the essence of our identity,” said the Deputy Director of the Lakota Language Consortium, Alex FireThunder. “The language is one of the ways that we connect with each other. It’s the way that our ancestors connected with each other. They spoke this language. They shared this language with the coming generations.”
FireThunder also worked as the instructor of the class held in Cherry Creek over the weekend. He said the sessions have been held across the country, wherever there is a desire or need.

“It’s a lifelong journey that I’m on, forever learning the Lakota language,” FireThunder said. “To me, it’s not about teaching. It’s more about sharing, it’s just sharing knowledge that was shared with me… If we don’t do that, the language doesn’t survive.”

One of the students in the class was Deanna Guerra, who has lived in Denver her whole life.

“When I was a young child, my mother was killed. I lost all connections to my relatives to my family,” Guerra said. “I’m on a journey for her.”

Guerra said in recent years, she has found family members who connected her with her heritage.

“It was so lost, and I just hope I can keep that fire going,” Guerra said. “Make my ancestors proud, make my mother and my daughter proud, and encourage my relatives and all the Native community to get our language back.”