Above the grand marble staircase of the South Dakota capitol building is a mural depicting an American Indian offering an animal skin to a white settler, titled “The Advent of Commerce.” More than two centuries after pioneers settled on the land now considered South Dakota, the state may finally be offering its American Indian people something in return.
Senate Bill 126, introduced by Senate Minority Leader and Rosebud Sioux tribal member Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, would recognize the language of the O'ceti Sakowin, also known as the Great Sioux Nation, as the official indigenous language of South Dakota. The language is comprised of three dialects: Dakota, Lakota and Nakota.
The Senate State Affairs committee on Friday, Feb. 8, unanimously voted to approve the bill after hearing over an hour of testimony from members of several of the state’s nine federally recognized tribes.
Now, SB 126 moves onto the full Senate, then the House, before it can land on Republican Gov. Kristi Noem’s desk. If it is signed into law, South Dakota would be the first in the contiguous United States to officially recognize in statute its indigenous language. Alaska and Hawaii already have similar laws on the books.
Tribal members that testified Friday said that after centuries of colonization and erasure, SB 126 would recognize and celebrate not only the language, but also the heritage, culture and existence of indigenous people.
Elyssa Sierra Concha teaches kindergartners through second-graders at the Lakota Language Immersion Program at the Red Cloud Indian School located in Pine Ridge. She was tearful as she asked committee members on Friday to pass SB 126 “for our children” so they can “grow up knowing that their state is fully behind them and who they are as indigenous people.”
“By passing this bill, you will let them know that who they are and the language they speak is not only recognized, but celebrated,” Sierra said. “I want these beautiful children in here and all throughout the state to feel nothing but pride growing up instead of having to fight for who they are.”
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The United States’ history of erasure of American Indian heritage runs deep, dating back to the country’s initial colonization by Europeans in the 15th Century. Along with tactics like forced removal and genocide, Europeans, then Americans, coerced American Indians to conform to Western culture through institutions like boarding schools, where young American Indian children were forced to rid themselves of their native culture by cutting their hair and speaking only English.
Faith Spotted Eagle, an American Indian activist, described to committee members arriving to school when she was 5 years old, where she had to give up her native language for English. She said SB 126 has been “a long time coming.”
Nikina Mills, an Oglala Sioux Tribal councilwoman, told legislators that her great-grandparents were punished for speaking Lakota. Mills, along with her grandparents and parents, never learned their native language as a result.
Now, her 8-year-old son speaks Lakota thanks to the Red Cloud Indian School’s immersion program. She began crying as she told legislators how special it is to her that he is able to speak the language she was never able to learn.
“It took over 100 years, four generations, for my son to be able to have the Lakota language be a part of his life,” Mills said, asking committee members to pass SB 126 not only for current speakers like her son, but also those to come.
Heinert told committee members that SB 126 is “a chance to right some wrongs" and honor the state's heritage.
“This is probably one of the biggest bills I’ve brought in my tenure,” Heinert told media on Friday. “My only regret is I haven't brought this bill sooner.”