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Mitchell man a 'bridge' to help restore Lakota language

Lyle Miller of Mitchell, S.D., shows a depiction of Sitting Bull that he painted. Miller, besides being an artist, is also trying to preserve and revive the Lakota language.

MITCHELL, S.D. - Among a mass of textbooks and unfinished paintings, Lyle Miller is waging a fight to regain his culture and return the Lakota language to reservations.

"I'm the bridge from the elders to the little ones," Miller said.

Miller, a Mitchell resident, artist, teacher and member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, has expanded his Lakota vocabulary from a few phrases and is in the process of becoming a fluent speaker, all within a year.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Lakota is spoken by fewer than 6,000 people, and the average age of Lakota speakers is 65.

Federal policies, such as boarding schools and the establishment of reservations, played a part in draining the Lakota language out of the American Indian population. English soon replaced Lakota as the primary language, and if an Indian person knows Lakota, Miller said, it's usually only a few words or phrases.

The Lakota Language Consortium says Lakota stopped being taught between generations in the mid-1950s, and now, only 14 percent of Lakota American Indians can speak the language.

It's a bleak situation, but Miller is on a crusade to change that, starting with himself. Now that he's taken time as a student, he's prepared to return as a teacher.

"The most difficult part is that we're losing our fluent speakers," Miller said.

After teaching Lakota to elementary school students in the Crow Creek Tribal School District, Miller, 48, realized his meager vocabulary of colors, numbers and animals wasn't doing his students justice.

"My bag of tricks ran out," Miller said. "I knew there has got to be more of it."

After 19 years as a teacher, he walked away from his contract with the school district and enrolled at the University of South Dakota. A year later, he's one of a few people with a teaching degree and a certification to teach Lakota. With a master's degree just around the corner, he hopes to teach Lakota at the university level.

USD wasn't Miller's first brush with the language. His grandmother, who was fluent, and his mother, who wasn't, spoke to each other in Lakota when Miller was a child.

"When I was little, I was afraid of it," Miller said. "It's supposed to be my language, but it's foreign to me."

Miller dropped out of high school three times before graduating and moving on to earn a degree from Dakota Wesleyan University in 1993. While at the university, he took the opportunity to dip his toe in the language.

"I didn't take it very seriously," Miller said. "I didn't do very well, but it lit something in me."

That fire remained warm until the death of his wife, Crystal, to cancer in 2006, and his mother, also to cancer, four years later.

"Family is everything to Lakota people," Miller said. "I lost a lot of loved ones. I have to pick up and lead my family, be the one who learns this language."

He began focusing on his artwork. One painting, "A Meeting of the Grandfathers," was purchased by the Minnesota HIstorical Society. Others have been purchased by casinos, and Miller's currently working on a project that will end up as a book cover.

In his office, his language textbooks are stacked on a paint-stained table, and textbooks on Lakota history, philosophy and art are in hidden piles behind unfinished canvases.

Learning the language has added another layer to his life.

"It's been coming out in my artwork," Miller said.

He spends at least 20 minutes a day studying the language, even if it means tearing himself away from a painting. Many items, such as salt, are labeled with their Lakota equivalents in his home. One day downtown, Miller saw a man with a tattoo that read "lone wolf," and Miller took time to explain the tattoo's Lakota translation to the man.

"I try to put a little Lakota everywhere I go," Miller said.

He's also trying to make an impact on Lakota children. He's been teaching his young daughter, Sadie, along with his grandson, Austin Hawk Jr., who lost his father and younger brother in a fire last year. Miller and his grandson have bonded through their tragedies, which has helped to make Lakota a focus.

"It was rough on me, and we talk to each other," Miller said. "I teach them something every day."

But Lakota isn't without its challenges.

Verbs have more than 40 different conjugations, and the Lakota language contains thousands of verbs. Lakota sentence structures are vastly different than their English counterparts, and there aren't many people for him to speak with. Many words have changed from their original meanings, and spellings are debatable.

When Christian churches first met with the Lakota people, the churches changed the meanings of some words, which makes finding the real meanings a struggle. Miller said the Lakota word "waka," a complex term describing the positive and negative side of the power to give and take life, create and destroy, and the conflict between those positive and negative sides, was translated by churches as meaning holy, sacred and mysterious.

Miller participates in a Lakota language forum where he can speak to others in an online chatroom in Lakota, along with receiving tools on sentence structure and learning vocabulary.

In his fight to preserve the language, one of his biggest obstacles is those who say Lakota has no practical use outside reservations.

"Maybe the language isn't important for that person," Miller said, "but for the little person, it's a huge thing."

He said he believes a resurgence of the language could help ease alcohol and drug problems on reservations.

"I tend to believe this language is powerful," Miller said. "Language is a positive thing. It gives you another way to think."

Miller said the language could help youth gain a sense of identity and reconnect with their elders.

"Knowing who you are, where you came from and caring, that makes you a better being," Miller said. "If you're searching for it, you can get frustrated. You get lost and go down a bad road."

He's been able to connect with his own elders, his 92-year-old grandmother, through the language. After receiving his certification, he set out to converse with her in the language of their ancestors.

"I had a goal to have a small, if insignificant conversation in our language," Miller said. "I felt a huge joy."

He hopes to follow the example of Albert White Hat, an activist for the Lakota language who died last month. White Hat, whom Miller had interaction with while learning the language, created multiple books and resources on the language.

He's hoping for parents to make an effort to bring the language back into the homes of Indians.

"The way it's supposed to be taught is in the home," Miller said. "The next best thing is in the classroom."

But from his small office, with his paintings of Sitting Bull looking down on him, he's taking it one step at a time, trying to place language back into homes and succeeding, even if it's his own home for now.

"The beauty of it, the flow of it, the way it flows is so beautiful," Miller said. "It seems like this language is alive in some way, has its own spirit. You can feel it."