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By Sarah Ottney
ABERDEEN — Fear kept Lanni Zephier-Smith's parents from teaching her and her siblings Lakota, their mother's native language.

"They didn't teach us growing up because, in their generation, they could get in trouble. My mother wanted to teach us. My father didn't say she couldn't, but he was cautious," said Zephier-Smith, a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota tribe. "The language was almost lost because of that fear that was instilled."

For several generations, Native Americans who did not assimilate into Western culture were looked at with suspicion, she said.

"My grandmother, when my mother was a child, would hang sheets in the window when they prayed so passersby couldn't see. This was on the reservation. Even if other Indians saw you, they'd report you. It was actually bad to be looked at as traditional. People lived in fear if they practiced traditional ways."

Today, there is a renewal of interest in learning traditional ways, including the speaking of native languages, Zephier-Smith said.

"Everyone is trying to learn it, no matter what age. And kids are learning it in reservation schools again."

Prophecy: In Native American spirituality, there is a prophecy of "the seventh generation," in which it is said that everything lost to white settlers will return to the native people, Zephier-Smith said.

"It is said that the buffalo will return, the language will come back, the culture and traditions will be practiced again," Zephier Smith said. "So I don't know whether it's because of that belief or because it's just time, but it is happening."

Zephier-Smith's mother, Alverda Bagola Zephier, of Aberdeen, is teaching her grandson, 4-year-old Mercury Zephier-Smith, to speak Lakota. Mercury, a member of the prophesied seventh generation, is the son of Zephier-Smith and her husband, Lance Smith, a Cherokee.

"She talked to him from when he was little," Zephier Smith said. "We intended to do that. We wanted him to learn it and to do it in a natural setting. She doesn't pull out books — they just talk. He doesn't speak in sentences yet, just words.

"I think for both my mom and dad, it's really heartwarming to see that in him. He has some pride in who he is; you can already see that. I know he's going to have to go through struggles, but he'll have a solid identity, hopefully more so than when I was a kid."

As her son learns, Zephier-Smith is also picking up more words.

"There's always pressure to assimilate, there just is. That's how my whole life has been. But I'm finally to a point now where I'm able to balance. I'm re-educating myself on our history and culture, and it's OK. I feel good about it."

Difficulties: Still, many Native Americans struggle with their place in the world, Zephier-Smith said.

"Having grown up in Aberdeen, I don't belong out on the reservation and I'm also visibly not a part of this community. I've always struggled with that. Mostly when I'm shopping and sometimes as a professional. I can always tell when someone is uncomfortable."

When her son is with her, people often stare at his hair, Zephier-Smith said. Although mostly cut short so that people know he is a boy, one piece has never been cut and hangs braided down his back.

"I see people look at him, and it breaks my heart to see that people in Aberdeen haven't changed that much and he'll have to go through the same things I did."

Commonalities: Northeast South Dakota's original residents and those who have followed have more in common than many realize, Zephier-Smith said.

For example, the area that would become the town of Aberdeen was already known as a meeting place by Native Americans because of its central location between two water sources.

"It's interesting that it also became the Hub City for the next culture," Zephier-Smith said.

As a culture, Native Americans have gone through something of an identity crisis, stemming from the trauma of losing their ancestral way of life, Zephier-Smith said.

"It was so sudden and so traumatic that it left a genetic imprint in future generations. There's a sadness. I have it, my mother and grandmother had it. My dad didn't admit it, but I know he did.

"When people read this, I hope they don't think, 'Oh no, not another victim story.' I want them to think of us as survivors and help us heal. I want to be a part of that for everybody."

Museum effort: Zephier-Smith and her family are working to open a Native American Cultural Center and Museum at the historic Milwaukee Road Depot in downtown Aberdeen in order to help both Native Americans and non-Native Americans alike learn about Native American culture. The family hopes that language and other classes can eventually be offered there.

"I want to be part of the change. Discrimination is always going to be there — it's a constant battle. But if people would open their minds and their hearts, we can all find a way to get along."

Common Lakota/Dakota phrases

Mitakuye Oyasin: We are spiritually related to all things; all my relatives.

Toksa Ake: See you later/again. "There is no word for good-bye in our language," Zephier Smith said.

Oyate: The People/Nation/World.

Tiyospaye: Family/Clan.

—Aberdeen American News/SST


A very touching post indeed. The article is really very touching. Thanks for sharing it.

I think it is great that the culture is being re-learned and the traditional ways are starting to be practiced again. I think it is a shame when one culture overtakes another and forces assimilation. It's one thing to have that common ground where despite cultural differences, everyone can hang out together but with cultural practices like language, spirituality, etc. people should be allowed to practice what they please.
---San Diego DUI Lawyer

Thank you for your honest perspective. My heart was breaking even over the stares your son gets about his braids. Sometimes I think we have come a long way in understanding and acceptance. Yet, in cases such as this, it is clear we have a long way to go. Peace to all.

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