Saturday, January 8, 2011

Merle Thunder Hawk


    I could not have asked for a better older brother than Merle.  Merle, as the eldest male child, had the privilege of spending a part of his early childhood with my grandfather and grandmother in their home along the Little White river in the Grass Mountain community.  That experience immersed him, quite early, into the traditional Lakhota culture and gave him a unique insight that later inspired the artwork that he created as an adult.     
    When he returned home, after his time with my grandparents, I relied on Merle to lead the way on the path through a wonderful childhood that we shared together growing up on the Rosebud Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota.  When our family left the reservation for Dallas, Texas, in the mid-sixties, he helped me to adjust to the bewildering demands of city life. 
    Now, he has led the way for me again by consecrating another path that waits for me, too, and I know that I will be able to rely on him there as well.  Gathered together in the warmth and glow of the reflections cast by our memories of Merle, this particular occasion now is another blessing and a gift that he has offered for each of us to share with each other.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Colorado University Lakȟóta Project Method for Writing Lakȟóta

    There is no "right" way to write the Lakȟóta language.  I am enrolled member of a division of the Oyáte ("Sioux") tribe that uses the Lakȟóta dialect.  We have our own unique problems to solve when it comes to our ways of writing our dialect.  The other groups within the Oyáte — and other aboriginal groups of the western hemisphere — need to solve their own problems and leave us alone so that we might try to resolve our problems within the Lakȟóta; for, when it comes to just this particular issue among the Lakhota, there are more than enough problems for us to try to resolve.
    The method I use for writing the Lakȟóta language was developed in the 1970s by linguists at the Colorado University Lakhota Project (CULP).  The critics of the CULP method, and there are many, tend to disparage its extensive use of diacritic marks.  However veiled the obvious contempt for this particular method, by professionals and educators — Lakȟóta and non-Lakȟóta alike — who consider themselves authorities on the matter of writing the Lakȟóta language, the only conclusions I have been able to arrive at have been that their "reasons" for their apparent disdain actually lie in the fact of either their inability or incapacity for replicating the sophisticated repertoire of diacritic marks required to express the Lakȟóta language in a written form.  In other words, they are either too lazy to learn how to program their keyboards to produce elements of Lakȟóta text or their mindsets are still artifacts of the nineteenth century — before the age of personal computers, programmable keyboards and fonts; before Unicode and the International Phonetic Alphabet.
    Especially at fault are the Lakȟóta in teaching positions at various educational institutions who have failed to recognize and accept the CULP method for writing the Lakȟóta language.  Some won't even respond to opportunities to discuss the matter, a rather interesting reluctance considering that they are paid to teach the subject.  Instead, as in one particular case, an alternative method for writing the Lakȟóta language was put together and published by a Lakȟóta but it was obviously derived from a preceding, antiquated method that was first published by a non-linguist, non-Lakȟóta who tried to twist elements of the Lakȟóta language and culture into a grotesque form that fulfilled his own agenda rather than actually recording facts to preserve the Lakȟóta people and culture.       
    As an eighteen-year-old marine, for eight-hours a day, five-days-a-week over a thirty-six week course, I studied and graduated from the South Vietnamese dialect of the Vietnamese language at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, Monterey, California.
    Vietnamese is a tonal language.  One word in the Southern dialect can mean five different things, based on the tone applied to it.  In the Northern dialect, one word can mean seven different things.  Typically, the accented characters use two diacritic marks.  It is not an ambiguous language.  The written form is unmistakably clear and concise.  The compression and economy gives the language its power, beauty and richness.
    So, when I read or hear non-Lakȟóta, or Lakȟóta, complain about how the CULP method of using diacritic marks in writing Lakȟóta is confusing or distracting. it seems to me that they are oblivious as to how confusing and distracting it is to try and read — much less comprehend — poorly written Lakȟóta.  Try reading some of the available published material with Lakȟóta text and it will become clear as to why the younger Lakȟóta on the Rosebud reservation struggle to either write, read or speak Lakȟóta.
    It's been a failure of leadership.  Lakȟóta youth — fortunately in this era of personal computers, programmable keyboards and fonts — will have to rely on each other and share with each other those methods, like the CULP method for writing Lakȟóta, which their educational institutions have either ignored or refused to incorporate.    

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My grandmother, Sea Shell Woman

My grandmother, Sea Shell Woman

Community Columnist
Saturday, 29 January 2000
My grandmother’s Lakota name was “Sea Shell Woman” so she always wore a tiny sea shell on a strand of leather around her neck. The first words I learned to speak in the Lakota language were those of her name. She used to point to the sea shell then to herself and pronounce the words to me in Lakota. The words sounded so beautiful that, as I grew up, I always associated the Lakota language and the iridescent beauty of sea shells with her.
Her earliest lessons to me were about unconditional love, the necessity of forgiveness and tolerance. She used the Little White river as a way to teach me about this. The river flows through the Grass Mountain area on the Rosebud Sioux Indian reservation, in South Dakota, where I grew up. The valley is sandy limestone with bright areas of chalk exposed along the ridges of the canyon walls. It was an ancient sea bed long ago, now thick with evergreen pine. She pointed to the river and explained to me that it was composed of tiny springs that converged far upstream. She described the larger rivers downstream that the Little White river emptied into and how all those waters flowed into an ancient, vast sea far away. Then she pointed to the rain falling from a cloud and she said that the rain brought back purified, fresh water that flowed away from us, long ago, through the Little White river to the salty sea.
Life always returned to us through these timeless cycles.
She told me about the time when, as a little girl, she was taken away from her family and she believed that she would never come back home. She was a child on the reservation when the U.S. government and Jesuit authorities came to her home and took her away from her family. She was escorted to the St. Francis Indian boarding school and she was confined there in custody of the Jesuit priests and Franciscan nuns until she was to graduate from the eighth grade.
The government authorities, with their indispensable Jesuit accomplices, had abducted her and held her hostage. Their ransom demand, made to her father and her mothers, was that her father get rid of one of his two wives with whom he had children. Their family structure was a traditional Lakota custom and he told them that they had no right to force their conceptions of sin on his family. He was unwilling to make such a terrible choice. So they abducted all of his children. My grandmother’s family was destroyed.
However, while confined at the school she met her future husband, Peter Bordeaux. He, too, was a Lakota incarcerated at the school and he had fallen in love with her. He was allowed to visit her only under the supervision of a nun who sat between them and monitored their visits. They were forbidden to speak Lakota to each other. It was as though their tongues had been ripped out of their hearts but they found ways to express their love for each other in the eternal language of the soul while they were taught how to speak the English language and were taught the barbaric customs of their abductors.
Long after they met, she contracted tuberculosis and became gravely ill. She became a useless burden to the Jesuits so she was thrown out and allowed to go back home to die. My grandfather gave her a large sea shell to take home with her. He told her to hold it to her ears whenever she wanted to hear the sea: A wonderfully mystical and powerful thing that exists so impossibly far, far away. When she held it up to my ears I could hear it, too.
She said that when the Jesuits had thrown her away and sent her back home to die it was as if she had become fresh water finally returning, as rain, back home to Grass Mountain: Purified, fresh water that innocently returned from a distant, vast sea of cruelty and bitterness. Although her tears fell like rain they were sweet tears of joy.
My grandfather married her although he risked infection from her disease. He later contracted it but his sacrifice saved her life and they survived for many years and had children.
Years later, she bought my grandfather an expensive, new pocket knife as a birthday gift. The handle was made of a polished sea shell. She said she wanted him to think of her whenever he used it. After she died I desperately wanted that knife and I continually begged my grandfather for it. Finally, he gave it to me as a birthday present and explained that he’d waited so long to give it to me because he wanted me to appreciate it.
Later, I grew into adolescence and, somewhere in the confusion of those reckless years, I lost the knife. Maybe I traded it or gave it away. Maybe I sold it. I can’t recall.
But I had forgotten – completely forgotten – all about this until last week when my wife and I were scavenging through the discarded, cheap junk for sale at the local Salvation Army store. Suddenly, I discovered an old broken pocket knife and a cracked sea shell – priceless and perfect treasures to me now because of my grandparents – so I bought them.
Cal Thunder Hawk is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, a federally-recognized tribe, from the rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, SD.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


    I am fortunate that I was born a Lakȟóta.  I could not have asked for a better life.  As an individual, I look for and find meaning within the unique honor that this fact of my birth has bestowed upon me.  It is a choice to continually look for and find meaning about what to do and how to act upon this responsibility; for the responsibility of the Lakȟóta way of life, as I understand it, demands that we unconditionally accept all people and all living things as our relatives.
    One of my most poignant memories is of a time -- years ago, as a volunteer "from the outside" to help Native American inmates at the Nebraska state penitentiary with spiritual ceremonies -- when I was asked to pray with an inmate who was brought out alone from the unit where the most violent were kept, into a yard where the armed guards in the towers had a clear shot at him, with his wrists manacled to a chain around his waist and his ankles chained together.
    He held the ceremonial pipe and prayed a traditional Lakȟóta prayer in the Lakȟóta language.  It was not a desperate prayer for deliverance from the cruel conditions of his imprisonment.  Instead, it was a beautiful prayer.   He asked that his life might be accepted as a sacrifice so that all people everywhere else might be helped to overcome the desire or the need to harm or to commit wrongs to another. 
    It seemed to me then that within that moment, as he prayed there, it was the only time he was ever truly free and happy.  He accepted himself in his situation — having wronged — and he prayed in his own tongue that his misery was a worthwhile, acceptable sacrifice that would help others, as he addressed his concerns and aspirations about, and for, the lives of others. 
    However, one of the amusing, useful and insightful things I have been privileged to learn concerns another time in my life: My time in the marines.  The combat-tested drill instructors emphasized the recognition of the potential for denial as a defense -- a psychological response -- to the violence and terror of combat in preparing marines for war.  The DIs would yell out a command in a booming voice "Marines!  When you jump off that huey chopper and land in that rice paddy under heavy enemy machinegun fire, you will not focus on a bug crawling on the stalk of rice in front of your face.  Marines!  You will not refuse to accept the situation!  You will adapt!  You will improvise!"
    Although daily survival occurs on a different level the threats are still there: Threats such as complacency; and this is one of the reasons that I write the Lakȟóta the way I do; for, traditionally, Lakȟóta survival in the wilderness relied on the ability to perceive and convey critical, accurate information. Ambiguity simply is not good enough and will never do when it comes to the Lakȟóta way of life.  When the wašíču introduced the horse and the rifle, we did not reject them because they were "wašíču".  We accepted our situation.  We adapted.  We improvised.  Who but an enemy of the Lakȟóta would try to encourage us — the Lakȟóta — to abandon the advantages that came our way?  So, I write Lakȟóta the way I do because the Lakȟóta deserve the very best of everything and this includes our daily individual efforts to improve the conditions of all.
    For, after all, mitákuye oyásį is a statement that comes only from the Lakȟóta dialect: We are all related.