Yolanda Pushetonequa, a diligent preserver of the Meskwaki language, will give a Q&A after a screening of Rising Voices.
By Jordan Ryder
Countless things are swept away in the marching of time. Objects get lost, stories forgotten, traditions placed by the wayside. History books and museums make an effort to preserve the past, but those cannot capture intangible things. They can’t capture the smell and taste of an authentic cultural dish.
Or what a language sounded like.
At 6 p.m. Thursday, the Native American Student Association will host a screening of Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi in W401 Pappajohn Business Building. Rising Voices is a documentary on language loss with Native American groups and modern revitalization efforts to give back a part of their fading culture. It focuses on the Lakota people, part of the Sioux tribes that live on the Great Planes.
After the documentary, Yolanda Pushetonequa, who is anticipating a Master of Arts in linguistics from the University of Minnesota, will participate in a Q&A session. Her studies have centered on measures taken to restore her ancestral language — the Meskwaki language — and finding more efficient ways of teaching it.
When Native Americans lost their land as the U.S. expanded, their way of life and languages were lost, leaving many culturally stranded. The time to revitalize is limited, as languages may be permanently lost.
“Native Americans were forced into boarding schools where they had to learn English and were punished for speaking their native language,” said Haley Henscheid, the president of the Native American Student Association at the University of Iowa.
As a result, many languages became endangered or died out entirely. Revitalizing movements, like the one featured in the documentary, have been slowly bringing the languages back into use through study and providing education the youth of affected communities.
Statistics vary, but the Rosetta Project suggests one language dies every two weeks to three months; death, in this case, is defined as having no native speakers remaining. The Linguistics Society estimates half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken today are endangered and will fade out entirely over the next century.
The damage began with colonialism, where the language of the dominating powers served as the language of the economy and success. Additionally, whatever education provided to the indigenous people was in the ruling power’s language.
“Social and economic forces push out other languages and make English dominant,” said Tyrone Peterson, member of Native American Student Association. “When you lose your language, you lose your cultural identity.”
There is a scientific theory backing this notion, called Linguistic Determinism. This theory holds that since individuals think in the language in which they speak, thought processes are limited to words and concepts within that language. If a word for a concept doesn’t exist in that language, it cannot be thought. Because language is the cornerstone of thinking and culture, as the languages around the world die out, ways of thinking become restricted.
“[Language preservation] is a global issue that we need to advocate,” Peterson said.