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New Lakota Leader Puts Emphasis on Language


Ron His Horse Is Thunder is the newly-elected tribal leader of the Standing Rock Lakota and a descendent of one of the most famous Indian leaders of all time: Sitting Bull.

But growing up in the shadow of the famous Lakota medicine man who fought to keep his people off the reservation didn't make Ron His Horse Is Thunder, 47, special in the eyes of his peers. "I was told growing up as a child that 'yes, yes you are a descendent of Sitting Bull and you need to make a contribution to the people,'" he recalls.

That sense of responsibility is one of the reasons he went to law school and why he decided to run for tribal chair this year. "In our tribe, your measure in life or your status in life is measured on what you do with your own life," he says. "So I went off and got a law degree and immediately came home and have been working for the tribe for the last 17 years."

Eleven of those years were spent as president of Sitting Bull Tribal College on the Standing Rock Reservation, where he initiated programs to increase students' awareness and appreciation of Lakota history and to provide technical assistance for business development on the Reservation.

Now, as tribal chair, Ron His Horse Is Thunder heads a community of 18,000. About half of the Standing Rock Lakota live on the reservation that straddles the border between North and South Dakota.

Unemployment runs as high as 76%, and the economy is a top priority for Mr. His Horse Is Thunder, who took office on October 12. Less than a week later, he hosted a conference on the reservation to explore business opportunities for tribal members.

But he says, the community needs more than jobs and money; it needs to feel a sense of pride in the Lakota language and culture. That's especially important where young people are concerned, he says, because suicide has reached epidemic levels among Lakota teens.

"My grandparents -- lived in extreme poverty, but they were proud of who they were," he says. "They were proud of being Lakota. They spoke the language. They understood the ceremonies. They understood the culture. Poverty isn't what is causing our children commit suicide. It's being lost in their identity."

Mr. His Horse Is Thunder says tribes rarely make their language important in the day-to-day lives of their members and the Lakota are no exception. "Most tribal governments meet and talk in English. In schools, English is the primary language," he says. "In Indian schools there are classes in Indian language - Lakota language here - but that is the only place in the whole school where Indian language is spoken. Street signs are written in English. Almost everything is in English."

The newly-elected tribal chair would like to see that change on the Standing Rock reservation. "If we are going to save our languages, we need to show our children that it has value. That it is not something you can get by without."

Making Lakota the primary language on the Standing Rock reservation will take some doing. Currently, only 25 to 30 percent of tribal members are fluent. Ron His Horse is Thunder is not among them. But he made a campaign promise to learn the language if elected, so government meetings could be conducted in Lakota. He renewed that pledge when he took office in October, saying if he has not learned the language by the time his term is up, he would not seek re-election in 2009.

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