Lakota elders helped a white man preserve their language. Then he tried to sell it back to them.


On May 3, the tribal council voted almost unanimously to banish the Lakota Language Consortium — together with its co-founder Wilhelm Meya and its head linguist, Jan Ullrich — from setting foot on the reservation. What the council took into consideration wasn’t simply the group’s dealings with the Standing Rock Sioux; it turned out not less than three different tribes had additionally raised considerations about Meya, saying he broke agreements over how to use recordings, language supplies and historic data, or used them with out permission.

Meya denies this. A spokesman shared letters of assist for Meya’s work from 5 tribes and tribal faculties, although in current interviews and statements to NBC News, officers with 4 of these tribes mentioned that they had considerations about Meya’s strategies.

Native Americans have been mined for monetary profit and tutorial accolades for hundreds of years. Information collected on Native Americans has hardly ever been taken with their consent or been used to serve their communities, whether or not by way of analysis carried out on Indigenous stays robbed from gravesites or on blood samples used without permission. Still, there are Lakota individuals who assist what the consortium is doing: They say preserving the endangered language is paramount.

This work has been profitable for Meya, who began the Lakota Language Consortium in Indiana within the early 2000s. He’s additionally the CEO of The Language Conservancy, a nonprofit group he based quickly afterward that works to revitalize different Indigenous languages.

In tax filings for 2020, Meya reported an annual wage of about $210,000 from his two nonprofit teams, in accordance to tax disclosure paperwork. That form of cash bothers some within the Native American communities he’s labored in; on the Standing Rock reservation, the median income is simply over $40,000.

Meya’s organizations have obtained greater than $3.5 million in federal grants over the previous 15 years for language revitalization tasks with tribes throughout the nation, data present. The Department of Health and Human Services alone has paid the Lakota Language Consortium almost $1 million to create among the textbooks the group sells for $40 to $50 apiece.

Meya says his work is a important software in preserving the Lakota language, which didn’t beforehand have a standardized written kind. He estimated that there are fewer than 1,500 fluent Lakota audio system left and that over the past decade and a half, the group has helped add 50 to 100 extra.

“Just as a result of cash is concerned in it doesn’t inherently make it an evil factor,” Meya mentioned in a current interview with NBC News. Most of the merchandise his organizations make are free, he mentioned, however the price of printing textbooks has to come from someplace. “That tends to be generally a part of the rhetoric, ‘Oh, there’s cash concerned. It should be, you realize, a part of the general colonization effort.’ Well, you realize, that’s simply not lifelike.”

The Language Conservancy government director Wilhelm Meya watches by way of a monitor as groups of linguists and Acoma audio system construct an Acoma dictionary in Acoma, N.M., on May 11, 2017.Cable Hoover / Gallup Independent through AP file

But a number of Indigenous teachers, authorized specialists and tribal leaders say the consortium is asserting control over greater than the instructing supplies it makes; it’s the community-specific data and tribal historical past that’s contained inside the books. Some of the phrases and phrases within the consortium’s supplies have by no means been recorded or transcribed earlier than, and charging a marginalized group any price for them is unethical, the specialists mentioned.

Taken Alive and a rising variety of tribal residents consider all of the dictionaries, textbooks and recordings ought to be free and accessible to the Indigenous communities that created the languages the merchandise educate.

The battle is a part of a larger dispute over how to preserve Native American languages and oral histories and whether or not outsiders ought to be allowed to generate income off of this work.

Estimates range, however there are barely greater than 100 Native American languages nonetheless spoken at the moment, less than half of what existed earlier than European colonization started. Whether by way of the damaging violence of Manifest Destiny or the assimilation efforts of the Indian boarding college period, the U.S. marketing campaign to remove Native American languages has been extremely efficient. Most of those who stay are at risk of extinction. Many tribes, particularly smaller ones with fewer sources, depend on non-Native organizations to preserve their languages.

A typical trait of Native American cultures is to maintain issues like land, sources and information communally. That runs into battle with U.S. copyright legal guidelines, which permit firms and nonprofit organizations to commoditize their work product — together with items of a shared language.

The Lakota Language Consortium notes on its web site that “nobody can copyright a language,” and the consortium says it shares its supplies with those that ask to make copies for instructional functions. But the copyright on the supplies nonetheless provides the group management over how the data is used, which is what some tribal leaders discover objectionable.

Even if a tribal nation has mental property legal guidelines defending its cultural data, if it lacks the authorized workers to assert management over that information, authorized specialists say it can nonetheless be weak.

The debate over how data collected from tribes is dealt with has caught the eye of tribal residents throughout the about half-dozen reservations the place Lakota is a first language. The controversy has spilled into tribal politics and social media, igniting a fierce debate over identification, decolonization and tribal sovereignty.

Tribes on this scenario are sometimes at a drawback, mentioned Jane Anderson, an affiliate professor of anthropology and a authorized scholar at New York University. Not solely do tribes hardly ever share within the earnings of language preservation efforts, they usually have to pay a part of the prices to implement them and have to buy the tip product, she mentioned.

“There is one thing deeply unethical and inequitable in relation to that, and I hear it on a regular basis throughout Indian Country,” she mentioned.

Makalika Naholowa’a, a Native Hawaiian lawyer and the manager director on the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, mentioned when organizations that commerce in Indigenous information don’t freely share that data with the communities they collect it from, they’re akin to miners or loggers, taking a precious useful resource and promoting it to whoever desires it.

“Data is the brand new oil,” she mentioned.

Words handed down for generations

Ray Taken Alive began studying Lakota as a child by listening to his grandmother Delores Taken Alive, who was a first-language speaker. She grew up in South Dakota, the place her household had lived since lengthy earlier than their land was a part of the United States. Delores was proud to have been given her Lakota title, Hiŋháŋ Sná Wiŋ, or Rattling Owl Woman, by her great-grandmother, who survived the bloodbath at Wounded Knee.

As a baby, when Delores was drifting off to sleep, she listened to her mother and father and grandparents inform tales in Lakota, and that’s how she realized the historical past of her individuals.

With the variety of Lakota first-language audio system dwindling, Delores was keen to assist preserve and transmit the language. Beginning in 2005, she recorded phrases and tales for Jan Ullrich, the linguist, and reviewed new entries within the Lakota Language Consortium’s dictionary. She signed an settlement with the consortium that paid elders up to $50 per hour, in change for unique rights to publish what they shared.

Meya mentioned he thought of Delores a good friend and that she contributed essential work to the dictionary. “She’s at all times needed her stuff on the market a lot,” he mentioned. “That’s been her form of trigger.”

Ray Taken Alive started formally studying Lakota in elementary college. He continued with courses in faculty and finally used the curriculum his grandmother helped create, regularly piecing collectively his individuals’s phrases. Over time, these phrases did what they’ve been doing for the reason that starting: They pieced him collectively, too, he mentioned. They gave him a manner of seeing his place on the planet that solely his ancestors might present.

This text reads "Aohomni Nak̄iṗa- Lak̇ot̄a Iyap̄i Ok̇olak̄iċiye," which roughly translates to “Run-Around Butte," the place where Ray Taken Alive is from. It's written using a Lakota alphabet developed by Leroy Curley.
This textual content reads “Aohomni Nak̄iṗa- Lak̇ot̄a Iyap̄i Ok̇olak̄iċiye,” which roughly interprets to “Run-Around Butte,” the place the place Ray Taken Alive is from. It’s written utilizing a Lakota alphabet developed by Leroy Curley. Ray Taken Alive

After his grandmother died from Covid in 2020 at age 86, Taken Alive mentioned he requested the consortium for her recordings. That’s when he realized the group retained the “unrestricted permission to copyright” and publish them, in accordance to the settlement she signed.

While the consortium finally gave Taken Alive copies of his grandmother’s tapes, he mentioned that was the second he was awoken to one thing larger: the extent of the consortium’s management over a long time of data collected from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. His tribe had helped fund the consortium’s effort and supported grants for it, in accordance to tribal leaders, so he believed the Lakota individuals ought to have entry to what got here from it.

Taken Alive determined to begin testing the boundaries of the copyrights. Last yr he posted among the consortium’s classes in a web-based language-learning app. The information belongs to the tribe, he figured, and if the group’s said goal is to educate the language, then it ought to be available to Lakota individuals. But he mentioned quickly after posting, he obtained a copyright infringement discover from the consortium, and the app eliminated the teachings.

“So I’m supposed to ask the Lakota Language Consortium if I can use my very own Lakota language,” Taken Alive requested in certainly one of many TikTok posts that will come to outline his social media presence.

A consultant for the Lakota Language Consortium mentioned in a assertion that the group “has at all times inspired academics to copy and share our Lakota language studying supplies with their college students. This is clearly totally different than somebody copying everything of an creator’s work and distributing it as their personal.”

Meya instructed the tribal council in April that the consortium had been working since 2018 to return all of the language information it had collected. “That’s been our No. 1 curiosity for a few years, in addition to ensuring that younger individuals have as a lot entry as attainable to these supplies,” he mentioned.

But the tribal council grew bored with ready. This spring it employed an lawyer to guarantee recordings and writings from lots of of Lakota audio system are returned.

The entrepreneur and the linguist

Meya was born in Vienna, grew up in Connecticut and moved to South Dakota to attend the Oglala Lakota College within the mid-Nineties. That’s when he turned excited by Lakota language and historical past and commenced studying from tribal elders. But “it was troublesome for anybody to be taught the language,” he mentioned, “simply because there have been no supplies and nothing very constant there.”

Meya continued finding out Lakota historical past in graduate college, and finally he determined to begin creating textbooks and lesson plans. He co-founded the Lakota Language Consortium whereas finding out for his doctorate at Indiana University. Today, the consortium and Meya’s different nonprofit group, The Language Conservancy, work with dozens of tribal nations, together with in Australia.

Meya started working with Ullrich, who’s now the top linguist on the Lakota Language Consortium, in 2002.

Ullrich grew up within the Czech Republic, and within the Nineteen Eighties he joined a group of white hobbyists who appropriated Indigenous tradition by dressing up as Native Americans, dwelling in tipis and smoking peace pipes, which was captured in a 1995 documentary. After spending a number of years finding out Lakota, Ullrich first visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1992. He has spent his summers within the Dakotas engaged on a new Lakota dictionary and instructing since.

“In my capability as a linguist, I’ve been doing my greatest to assist the efforts,” he mentioned through electronic mail.

Most individuals who have labored with Ullrich, each Native and non-Native, describe him as a succesful trainer who’s genuinely excited by revitalizing the language. But others have raised considerations about his previous hobbyism and disagree with the way in which the consortium has standardized Lakota, making it simpler to translate into languages like Czech and sell in translated texts, which he has carried out.

Meya and Ullrich, in addition to their supporters in tribal communities, describe Taken Alive’s efforts to cease them as an orchestrated disinformation marketing campaign.

“Our monitor report speaks for itself,” Meya mentioned. “And it’s stunning, and superb, and incredible, and miraculous in each manner. And, you realize, if there’s people who need to tear it down for their personal private, you realize, agendas or no matter, that’s unlucky.”

Most of the Lakota Language Consortium’s board members are Lakota, and a few of them got here to April’s tribal council assembly to defend the consortium’s work as a important software for language preservation.

“I communicate conventional Lakota, and I gave the whole lot I had to this effort,” mentioned Ben Black Bear, the consortium’s vice chairman and a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “I don’t care if they offer me any copyrights or generate income on me. I don’t care. The goal is to get the language on the market.”

Long battle for sovereignty

Over the previous two years, as Taken Alive started talking out about Meya and Ullrich on social media, he linked with residents and leaders of different tribes who raised comparable considerations concerning the pair’s practices.

Last yr, after Taken Alive confronted Meya at a convention run by the National Indian Education Association, the affiliation requested The Language Conservancy to cease attending its conferences. Diana Cournoyer, the affiliation’s government director and a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, mentioned she heard from a number of members of the affiliation who voiced considerations concerning the conservancy both not sharing revenues with the communities that created the languages or not absolutely explaining the extent of its management over the fabric it collects.

Meya mentioned the tribal residents who labored along with his nonprofits had been glad to assist with language preservation and understood how their phrases could be used. “They would search out to be recorded,” he mentioned.

The scenario ought to begin a bigger dialog about Indigenous data sovereignty, the flexibility of tribal nations to management their personal data, Cournoyer mentioned. “It’s time to have an open dialogue that ends in a resolution,” she mentioned.

Naholowa’a, the Native Hawaiian lawyer, mentioned Indigenous individuals’s calls for to personal their language and tradition “are rooted in their human rights.”

She mentioned federal regulation doesn’t account for the way in which tribal nations communally preserve cultural and mental property or the usually inequitable circumstances during which that data is taken.

Most mental property attorneys haven’t any understanding of the cultural implications at play, Naholowa’a mentioned, placing tribes on the drawback of getting to stay vigilant in defending their residents’ information. Of the tens of 1000’s of mental property attorneys within the nation, she’s discovered solely 14 who determine as Indigenous.

Anderson, the New York University authorized professional, mentioned that simply because the conservancy is working legally doesn’t imply its work is moral.

“You make it free for the communities whose language it is — I imply, that’s simply primary ethics and accountability,” she mentioned.

While some tribal governments have been proactive by creating their personal mental property legal guidelines or hiring attorneys to defend their data, many extra have realized the restrictions of property regulation the onerous manner.

The Pueblo of Acoma have been dwelling on a mesa of golden stucco properties in central New Mexico for over 2,000 years, one of many longest regularly inhabited villages on the continent.

While the Pueblo’s language, Keres, has been in use for 1000’s of years, like Lakota it was by no means put into a standardized written kind. The Language Conservancy started working with the Pueblo to develop a dictionary and curriculum for instructing Keres in 2017.

But the Pueblo terminated its contract with the group in 2019.

According to a assertion from tribal Gov. Randall Vicente’s workplace, the conservancy’s staff then tried to abscond with the information that they had collected, in addition to language supplies developed by the tribe. In the assertion, the workplace mentioned staff of the conservancy loaded the supplies into their automobiles, and tribal police had been dispatched to pull them over and make them return the objects.

“Despite these incidents, Acoma nonetheless was compelled to negotiate with The Language Conservancy for the return of all its property,” the governor’s workplace mentioned within the assertion. It took greater than a yr for the group to return the whole lot, the workplace mentioned.

The tribe’s contract with the conservancy gave the nation rights over any mental property created. In 2020, the Pueblo of Acoma and The Language Conservancy signed a settlement saying that the conservancy might not educate Keres courses, in accordance to the tribe.

Meya known as the criticisms “inflammatory” and “unfaithful.” He mentioned his work with the tribe halted  after new tribal leaders deserted the mission. “The Acoma story may be very advanced, largely has to do with the change of management on the tribe,” he mentioned.

Sacred tales

For Standing Rock Sioux Councilman Charles Walker, the second that sealed the Lakota Language Consortium’s banishment was when he realized of the Calico Winter Count.

Loads of the data we’ve got at the moment on tribal nations — their relations with one another, modifications in management and distinctive traditions — comes straight from Indigenous individuals themselves. Many bands of Plains tribes, just like the Lakota, saved what are often called winter counts, pictorial histories drawn onto animal hides. Each one is a calendar stretched throughout the gentle underside of a disguise, each picture capturing an important occasion of that yr, from first snow to first snow.

Gloria Runs Close To Lodge-Goggles in the indigenous section of the library with her daughter Jennifer Runs Close To Lodge at the Wyoming Indian Middle School in Ethete, Wy., on April 26, 2022.
Gloria Runs Close To Lodge-Goggles and her daughter Jennifer Runs Close To Lodge within the Indigenous part of the Wyoming Indian Middle School’s library in Ethete, Wyo., on April 26, 2022. Jennifer is the librarian on the college, situated on the Wind River Indian Reservation.Natalie Behring for NBC News

Gloria Runs Close To Lodge-Goggles mentioned it was a nice honor when she was chosen to hold the Calico Winter Count and its translations. Her ancestor Black Shield documented a multitude of occasions, together with when he acted as Lakota Chief Red Cloud’s interpreter throughout a diplomatic go to to Washington, D.C., in 1870.

Goggles saved the audio and written translations on the Oglala Lakota College for safekeeping, solely to be accessed by college students with the household’s permission.

Meya obtained entry to them whereas attending the faculty within the Nineties — with out Goggles’ information, she mentioned — and he quickly started writing and lecturing on their contents. Meya mentioned he obtained them with the permission of the faculty’s archivist.

In 1998, Meya donated copies of the winter depend translations to the University of Washington as supply materials to obtain a grant.

Later that yr, Goggles obtained a cease-and-desist order from the Oglala Lakota Tribal Court requiring Meya to return all of the supplies and copies and to cease publishing or making displays concerning the depend. But Meya used the data in his 1999 master’s thesis on the University of Arizona, during which he described the Calico Winter Count as “a essential kind of indigenous information set” and “extremely credible historic sources that may play central roles within the building of tribal histories.”

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