My mother is from the heart of Copper River Valley of Alaska. She moved to Standing Rock Reservation after meeting my father. They were a young couple with two small children. My mother befriended a woman named Marge Edwards (Shoots the Enemy). This bond formed over the years creating a Huŋka (adoption); the younger generations thought my mother was a Lakota. Marge took us as her own, always up-holding kinship and love for us at all times.
In 2011 Lakota Language Action Education Program (LLEAP) was created. I applied for this program because I enjoyed learning our language. This path I embarked on was a path of enlightenment. I had a broken spirit, but with each word and sentence structure I learned, my spirit mended. Marge’s first language was Lakota; she obtained a teaching degree and was one of the first Lakota Language teachers on Standing Rock. She was my biggest supporter. Not only was she my aunt, but she was also my hardest teacher. She was my personal dictionary. In the beginning years of LLEAP, I would call her regularly for words, translations, and corrections or to have her hear me speak. As I progressed through my first semester of LLEAP, I felt invincible! I would call my aunt every other day just to share what I had learned.
As Thanksgiving break was approaching, another family member informed me that my aunt was sick. I called my mother to confirm the news. I finished my first semester and returned home as quickly as possible. Upon returning home, my aunt and I were up late making frybread. It was a quiet night as we cooked. I finally asked my Aunt, “Why didn’t you tell me of your condition?” She was quiet for awhile and spoke softly, “Because you and I have work to do! I didn’t want this thing to be in our way. I want our focus to be Lakȟotiyapi and education. So now let’s do some drills.” We did do drills; I had to say as many Lakota Words I knew for her as we finished frying bread.
For the remainder of her days with me, we spoke about the language, and we spoke in the language. During her last time at my house, we talked in the living room; it was the first time I had held a one-hour conversation in the language without breaking into English. It was a small milestone, but it was our moment. We sat on the couch just grinning at each other. I didn’t know this moment was big at the time, nor did I know how precious it would be to me, but since then I learned to take a step back and enjoy it.
The summer of 2012 is when my beloved aunt passed on. Her passing is when I realized the dynamics in my life had shifted; it would no longer be the same. Aunt Marge had a vast of knowledge of the language, culture, concepts, conduct, etiquette, and history that were no longer with the people. She was a hardcore teacher, never once wavering from the influence of English language even though it was everywhere around us. She gave me one simple advice that I hold dear to this day – “Keep it pure, keep it simple, and keep it sacred.” This vision statement of the Lakota language has gotten me through some crazy times.
I realized in the summer of 2012, that there would come a time when I will not have anyone to correct me with Lakȟotiyapi. There will be a time when first language speakers will be gone. I realized the actual state of Lakȟotiyapi, because of my own personal loss. My attitude had changed, my perception had changed, and I realized it was not Lakȟotiyapi endangered, but more importantly, Lakȟotiyapi Thought was in jeopardy.
I thought my beloved aunt Marge would see the day I graduated. I thought she would be here the first day of school with me as the teacher. I thought she would see the day I became fluent. She is with me in spirit, but I thought she would physically hug me on these milestone moments. Marge gave me the gift of language. In honor of the ones that endured so much, we as the people and Frontline Language Warriors need to focus on sharing the language.
My mentor, Dr. Armik Mirzayan, once said, “My mother told me, when someone is teaching you language, it is a gift! Because they are giving more than just words! It is culture, spirituality and a different thought processes! So you see the world with new eyes! I believe this wholeheartedly!”
Takómni áiyopteya Lakȟól’uŋkiyapi kte, takómni tuktétuke éyaš Lakȟól’uŋkiyapi kte, takómni Lakȟól wówiyukčaŋ ogná Lakȟól’uŋkiyapi kte.