The endangered Lakota language has lost one of its greatest supporters. Albert White Hat, who died in South Dakota on 11 June at the age of 74 of prostate cancer, was instrumental in teaching and preserving the American Indian language and translated the Hollywood film Dances with Wolves into Lakota for its actors.
White Hat, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, wrote several books on writing and reading Lakota, a language fluently spoken by fewer than 6,000 people. The average age of those speakers is 60, and less than 14 percent of the Lakota population in South Dakota and North Dakota – where the vast majority of Lakota speakers live – speak their native tongue.
The first native Lakota speaker to publish a Lakota textbook and glossary, White Hat was considered an activist for traditional ways of living, according to his daughter, Emily White Hat. He even created an orthography for the language, which he had taught since 1975, and was head of the Lakota Studies Department at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. His daughter said he believed in sharing the Lakota way of life with both tribal members and non-Native Americans.
He believed "there was always an opportunity to educate," she said. "Even though some questions may be off the wall, he believed it was better to take the opportunity than to be misled about who we are."
One of those opportunities came when White Hat provided the translation for the Lakota dialogue in the 1990 Oscar-winning Kevin Costner film Dances with Wolves.
Wilhelm Meya, executive director of the Lakota Language Consortium, a not-for-profit organisation seeking to revitalise the Lakota language, called White Hat a "warrior" for the language. Meya said he hopes White Hat's legacy lives on, and that more young people will decide to study the language and work to retain its importance. "Over 100 Lakota speakers pass on [each year]," Meya said. "Those speakers are not being replaced by young speakers. Until we can reverse that trend, the language will continue to be very much in danger."
White Hat was born on the outskirts of St. Francis, South Dakota, on the Rosebud reservation. He spoke only Lakota until his teens, when he started learning English in school. His grandfather, Chief Hollow Horn Bear, was a leading chief in many of the Plains Indians Wars against settlers in the 1800s, and was also involved in treaty negotiations with the U.S.
Rosebud Sioux Tribal President Cyril Scott called White Hat a great teacher, spiritual leader and friend. He noted that White Hat was known all over the powwow circuit and was awarded numerous awards in honor of his dedication to preserving the Lakota language and culture. White Hat is survived by his wife, seven children and many grandchildren.