Native American children in the 1870s had a good reason to speak English.

Starting in the late 19th century, thousands of American Indian children were taken from their homes and families and sent to boarding schools. White teachers would cut the students’ long hair, dress them in standard uniforms and attempt to instill “civilized” values into children who were considered savage.

Savage behavior included speaking their native languages. Students caught speaking in Lakota or other Native American languages would have their mouths washed out with soap. That continued in some schools through the 1960s.

Of the hundreds of native languages spoken before Christopher Columbus sailed to what is now known as the United States of America, only a few dozen remain, said Wilhelm Meya, chairman of the organization the Language Conservancy.

“The federal government, through its policies, was able to accomplish a kind of forced assimilation,” he said. “The problem with that is these Indian people, the parents and the kids, were never given a choice as to whether or not they wanted to continue to speak their language. It was forced on them.”

Nationwide, about 6,000 people speak Lakota, the Language Conservancy reported in its new documentary, “Rising Voices.” Soon, the average age of a Lakota speaker will be 70 years old. The language, passed from generation to generation of Native Americans, is now on the brink of extinction.


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