Language Preservationist Banished by Sioux Elders

Wilhelm Meya was accused of misappropriating Lakota language and culture
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 11, 2022 8:00 AM CDT
Language Preservationist Banished by Sioux Elders
In this May 11, 2017 photo, Language Conservancy executive director Wilhelm Meya watches through a monitor as teams of linguists and Acoma speakers build an Acoma dictionary. The Acoma cut ties with Meya in 2019, and he was banished in May, 2022 from the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation.   (Cable Hoover/Gallup Independent via AP)

A nonprofit focused on preserving endangered languages has been banished from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The unusual and unanimous decision by the tribal council applies to the Lakota Language Consortium, including its co-founder Wilhelm Meya, according to NBC News. Like scores of other Native American languages, Lakota is highly endangered, and it never existed in standard written form (although orthographer Larry Curley created the Lakota alphabet in 1982). Starting in 2005, the consortium worked with Lakota elders to develop a dictionary and curriculum materials. Years later, everyone is pleased with the final product; the problem is that Meya’s organization claimed copyrights and full control over everything. To see the results of the work, tribe members would have to buy Meya's textbooks.

The consortium paid elders for their time “in exchange for exclusive rights to publish what they shared,” per NBC, but schoolteacher Ray Taken Alive only learned the extent of that exclusivity when he was denied access to his late grandmother’s voice recordings. “No matter how it was collected, where it was collected, when it was collected, our language belongs to us. Our stories belong to us,” says Taken Alive. Meya, who is white, says his work is vital, but there are ongoing production costs, and “just because there is money involved doesn’t inherently make it an evil thing.” His work is funded largely by federal grants, to the tune of $3.5 million over 15 years. Many scholars and legal experts say Meya’s approach is unethical, and at least three other tribes have had similar issues, including the Pueblo of Acoma, New Mexico, who cut ties with Meya in 2019. Read the full story. (More Standing Rock Sioux Nation stories.)

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