SIOUX FALLS | The Lakota language has lost one of its greatest supporters.
Albert White Hat, who was instrumental in teaching the endangered American Indian language to new generations for nearly four decades, died last week at a hospital in South Dakota, according to language preservationists and fellow members of his Rosebud Sioux Tribe. He was 74.
White Hat authored several books on writing and reading Lakota, a language spoken fluently by fewer than 6,000 people. The average age of those speakers is 60, and less than 14 percent of the Lakota population in South Dakota and North Dakota — where the vast majority of Lakota speakers live— speaks their native tongue.
He had taught the Lakota language since 1975, and was an instructor at the Lakota Studies Department at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Also the author of books about life on the reservation, White Hat was considered an activist for traditional ways of living.
"Albert was a great teacher, a spiritual leader and a friend to all who came to know him and was well known within the powwow circuit," Rosebud Sioux Tribal President Cyril Scott said in a statement, noting that White Hat was awarded numerous awards in honor of his dedication to preserving the Lakota language and culture.
He was born on the outskirts of St. Francis, S.D., on the Rosebud reservation. He spoke only Lakota until the age of 7, when he started learning English in school. His grandfather, Chief Hollow Horn Bear, was a leading chief in many of the Plains Indians Wars against settlers in the 1800s, and was also involved in treaty negotiations with the U.S.
Wilhelm Meya, executive director of the Lakota Language Consortium, a nonprofit seeking to revitalize the Lakota language, called White Hat a "warrior" for the Lakota language and said he hopes White Hat's legacy won't go unrecognized.
"Anytime someone who cares so deeply about the language passes, it's a blow to the language and the revitalization efforts," Meya said.
White Hat's death could serve as a wakeup call to people that the Lakota language is still in danger of becoming extinct, Meya said. And he hopes more young people will decide to study the language and work to retain its importance.
"We are, after all, losing speakers every year," Meya said. "Over 100 Lakota speakers pass on (each year). Those speakers are not being replaced by young speakers. Until we can reverse that trend, the language will continue to be very much in danger."
White Hat is survived by his wife, seven children and many grandchildren.