Clara Miller-Broomfield speaks with Wilhelm Meya and Lawrence Hott. Lawrence, in conjunction with Diane Garey, is the filmmaker of “Rising Voices”/Hótȟaŋiŋpi—a documentary focused on the efforts being made to revitalise the Lakota language of the American Great Plains in the 21st century. Wilhelm is head of the Language Conservancy and the film’s executive producer. It is estimated that only 20 of 300 Native American languages originally spoken north of Mexico will exist by the year 2050—a fact that makes the preservation and revitalisation of languages like Lakota increasingly important. “Rising Voices”/Hótȟaŋiŋpi began premiering on public television stations across the United States on November 1, 2015 as part of an effort by those involved with the film to raise awareness of Lakota’s status as an endangered language.
Could you start by explaining in a bit more detail your role in developing Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi and how exactly you were involved?
Wilhelm Meya: I’m the executive director of the Language Conservancy, and I’m also the executive producer of the film. I was the person who helped develop the idea and bring it to fruition by finding a filmmaker to partner with, coordinating the funding for it, and getting the communities [of Lakota speakers] involved.
Lawrence Hott: I’m the filmmaker and the producer/director; I was a consultant at first but eventually became the producer/director because the Language Conservancy had never made a film before. So I was the person who did all the directing and worked with the editor to make sure everything came together in the end.
What specifically caused or motivated you to want to make this documentary?
Wilhelm: There were two important needs that we wanted to address in making the film. One was to tell the story of Lakota young people as they learn the language, get involved in the movement, and become passionate about it—and how this transforms their lives. We wanted those stories to be an inspiration to other young people, other young Lakota people who weren’t sure about where they stood on the language and needed role models and to basically take the attitude of, “you know, if so-and-so can learn it, then I can learn it, too. It’s not impossible to learn, and it’s something that will make me a fuller human being and proud of who I am.” Essentially to build their self-esteem and all of the confidence that comes with that, as well. We wanted to tell inspirational stories.
The second major thing that we wanted to do was to tell the general public about this really unknown aspect of what’s happening to Native American languages. You know, it’s such an unknown issue, an issue that is so peripheral to most people’s awareness, and we felt that so much could happen to these languages in a positive way if only people knew the story behind them—the impact that they have on these communities, the value to all Americans of having these indigenous languages still active and vibrant and spoken. Not to mention the loss that these cultures will experience if we let their languages pass…
Lawrence: I actually came to this subject with very little knowledge on it; I’ve done a lot of history films—most of which deal with 19th century American wilderness issues—and this is my 25th major film. But you cannot deal with American history—particularly in the West—without talking about the attempted expatriation of Native Americans. So I was very aware of that component of the project and had dealt with it in the past, but the language issue I had only dealt with in a film I made back in 2007 called Through Deaf Eyes that involved sign language as a means of conveying the experiences of the deaf community in the United States. I had a sense from having worked on that project of what happens to a community when its language is threatened, but I didn’t know a lot about the specific Native American language subject. But I read an enormous amount, and we brought in a lot of scholars, and interestingly enough, this is not the first endangered language film to be made—far from it. Many tribes, groups, and countries have the same issue, but we wanted to make a quality film specifically about the Lakota people.
Very true, and unfortunately Lakota is far from being the only endangered Native American language out there. But what made you want to focus on it as opposed to on one of the others?
Wilhelm: You know, I’m Austrian—born in Vienna—and moved to the United States when I was young, about three years old. So I was not a person who had always been interested in Native American languages; I think it just kind of happened by accident when I was in college, but because of that and because of my close work with communities going back 25 years, I can see how central language is to those identities and how difficult it was—even back in the mid-90’s—to learn Lakota and other Native American languages. So language was an important issue, and my work began particularly with the Lakota—which is why they are featured front and centre. They’re also one of the larger tribes in the United States—very well-known—, and their story is repeating itself in all of these other Native American communities, although some have experienced even more language loss.
What the Language Conservancy does is work with all of those communities—or as many as we can—to help give them at least some of the same success that we’ve had with Lakota. And with Lakota, of course, we’ve been able to dub cartoon series, create massive dictionaries, build an entire language infrastructure for that community. We’re also trying to do those things for the other languages, but it takes a lot of time, effort, patience, and funding. But we hope that, down the road, this film will spur changes in public policy as lawmakers and voters decide that it is worth investing in preserving all of these languages and that it takes resources to do that.
What was the most challenging part for you of working on Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi?
Lawrence: Well, the social issues on the reservations can be very serious, and it was hard for me at times to know what problems people were having at home—when people would not want us to come to their houses, for example, because their home situations were so difficult. Others, of course, welcomed us into their lives—but there was also a lot of embarrassment on the part of many about their inability to speak their indigenous language, and we had to be very careful when asking people questions because we didn’t want to put them on the spot. This is why being an outsider was maybe both an advantage and a disadvantage; I can see a film being made on the subject by an insider, from a personal point of view, but that wasn’t exactly our intention. I think it’s always going to be difficult—even after a few years—to really understand a community that you’re not a part of; it’s an issue that doesn’t go away just because you have funding and are making a professional film for public television.
There was also the physical limitation of the distances between the communities; you have many Lakota who are working in Washington, DC as professionals, as well as people in Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and of course on multiple reservations. You have different economies, different education levels, different health levels, even. So there was a lot to be learned and a lot of challenges, and I think we overcame a lot of those issues. But it wasn’t a film that could be done quickly; it takes time to think through a project like this, and there’s a reason aside from getting the funding that it took us four years to make!
Well, that brings me to my last question: There are bound to be people out there who question the validity of what you’re trying to do, who wonder what the point is of putting money and resources into revitalising this language when virtually everyone in the United States already speaks English anyway. But what would you say to somebody of that opinion to help him or her understand the importance of language preservation?
Wilhelm: Well, essentially, when a language is lost, all of the ideas, worldviews, history and culture—the songs and the jokes and the artistic visions—are lost, as well. So all of the ways that culture is expressed through language, which in most cases have existed for tens of thousands of years, disappear. They’re unique, irreplaceable perspectives, and they create a more diverse and richer experience for all of us as human beings. But if—as some people estimate—if 90% of the world’s 6,000 languages die in the next 50 years, we’ll be in danger of developing a monolithic worldview that lacks diversity, new ideas, and innovations. Some languages, for example, have hundreds of ways of expressing concepts that have to do with nature or the environment—or in the case of Lakota, certain action verbs that are far less nuanced in English. And so there’s a beauty in that sense to the language that many other languages don’t have, and we want to make that available to people as we move forward—especially to the people who belong to the Lakota tribe and who have a human right to use that language, as well as English, whenever they want to do so.
There’s really no reason that here in the United States—where we’re all so comfortable with English and want to use English predominantly—that learning and speaking a second language should not be a worthwhile pursuit. I could go on and on about all the advantages—the self-esteem and the health that comes to communities when they are content with the knowledge of who they are—, and we want to be sure to help facilitate those benefits.
Native Americans have certainly not had it easy over the past 150 years—typically in the past, they were not given a choice as to whether they wanted to learn English and lose their indigenous languages—and it will lead to a less rich experience for all of us in life if we don’t do what we can to preserve and revitalise their languages now that we have the chance.
Lawrence: How would you like a world where we only had one television station that showed the same types of movies day after day, where everybody wore the same clothing all the time—a world that was only black and white? Different languages provide different outlooks on the world, and there are lots of studies that look into whether speaking a certain language changes the way a person thinks. It has more or less been proven that that’s not exactly true, but linguistic diversity does give us different perspectives and reflections of different cultures. The Lakota, for example, believe that God doesn’t understand English—that he only understands Lakota—and think of what would be lost if you believed that but didn’t speak Lakota. Literature written in the original language is more true to the author’s intent than a translation, although translations can be wonderful. A prayer or a speech given by a Lakota leader has a different mood and feeling and intent in Lakota than it would in English, and would you really want that to be lost and live in a monochrome world?