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In early 2011, I received a call from Wil Meya, the director of The Language Conservancy in Bloomington, Indiana. He had an idea for a documentary film and wanted to know if I had any interest in the helping to make the film a reality. I get a lot of calls like this and I was ready to say no; I know how long and hard the climb is to the mountaintop of full funding, production, and eventual broadcast. But there was something intriguing about the idea and, at the same time, something very familiar.
Wil’s idea was this – a documentary about the imminent peril to the Lakota language, the culture shaped by that language, and the history that created that peril. The Language Conservancy and its sister organization, The Lakota Language Consortium, had been working to save the Lakota language for eleven years. Conventional teaching methods had failed miserably; after decades of tribal and government support, exactly zero children were coming out of public schools speaking Lakota. The danger to the language was (and is) imminent because the average age of native speakers is sixty-five. When they pass away, their grandchildren will not be Lakota speakers unless the community figures out right now how to teach the language effectively.
What intrigued me about the film, besides the well-known international statistic that there are approximately 6000 languages in the world and one dies every three months (some say every two weeks!), was that I had produced a very similar film not long before. In the mid-2000s the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts sponsored “Through Deaf Eyes,” a co-production with WETA, Washington DC in Association with Gallaudet University, about the history of deaf life in America. The central conflict in the film was the threat to American Sign Language from technical advances and cultural assimilation. In many ways, these same forces also threaten the survival of the Lakota language.
I am not deaf, nor were my co-producers and crew, and that was politically dicey. We wanted to involve the Deaf community as much as possible and the way we did that was to commission six deaf filmmakers to make short films about their lives and concerns. We then edited those short films into the larger production. The idea worked very well and helped make the film a hit both in and out of the Deaf world. (You can find out more about “Through Deaf Eyes” here.)
We figured that this technique would work well in a film about the Lakota language. Once again, we were outsiders and we needed the first-person perspective of people in the community. In our scripting and production proposals to the NEH we emphasized the similarities between “Through Deaf Eyes” and “Rising Voices” and how commissioning Lakota filmmakers to make short films for the documentary would give tribal members true participation in the production. In 2012, we received scripting funds and in 2013 production funds from the NEH. We had already been in production by then with funds from Vision Maker Media (formerly Native American Public Telecommunications, a program funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), who also approved of the idea.
The final sixty-minute film, Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi, braids together several strands of the story: the struggles of the Lakota to learn their tribal language today, the historical attempt by the United States to annihilate the language, and the converse history of non-native admiration for all things Native American. History is interwoven with both present-day scenes and with the four short films about the culture, which were created by Lakota filmmakers and artists especially for Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi.
We structured the film to interweave past and present, to tell the story of both the problem today and the historical causes of that problem. It’s the story of people who tried to eradicate a language by force, but it’s also a story of those who struggle to save that language; the story of Native Americans and non-natives, at war and peace, then and now. And it’s a rare story of collaboration across cultures in an attempt to avert a kind of death – the death of a language.
You can see the four short films by Lakota filmmakers Dana Claxton, Milt Lee, Alayna Eagle Shield, and Yvonne Russo and bonus videos here. The full film will be broadcast on public television stations starting on November 1, 2015. You can order the film from The Language Press or Vision Maker Media.
Credits: RISING VOICES/HÓTȞAŊIŊPI, a film by Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey, is a production of Florentine Films/Hott Productions, Inc. in association with The Language Conservancy. The project is funded by The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Administration for Native Americans, The Dakota Indian Foundation, the South Dakota Humanities Council, and the North Dakota Humanities Council and Vision Maker Media with major sponsorship provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Executive Producer for The Language Conservancy, Wilhelm Meya; Executive Producer for Vision Maker Media, Shirley K. Sneve. © 2015
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in Rising Voices do not necessarily reflect those of the North Dakota Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Lawrence Hott is, along with Diane Garey, the producer of Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi.