Uŋktómi & the Copyrights of the Dakota/Lakota Language

Unktomi artwork by Marlena Myles

Uŋktómi & the Copyrights of the Dakota/Lakota Language

I created this after reading more and more how outside entities (linguists, researchers, universities) are copyrighting Indigenous languages and making it very difficult for tribes to freely use knowledge that have been passed down for generations. Details about how this is happening to the Lakota language can be read at the Lakota Language Reclamation Project

Uŋktómi (also spelled Iktomi, Ukto/Ikto, Unktome, Inktomi) is the trickster spirit in Dakota/Lakota culture, with many, many stories existing that illustrate lessons we should be aware when it comes to our behaviors and others. One such story told by Oliver Gourd, a tribal elder from my reservation, the Spirit Lake Dakota tribe, tells us of Uŋktómi’s prediction of how we would lose our culture. I adapted that story to warn about the modern dangers of outside entities copyrighting Indigenous languages and preventing tribes from using their ancestral knowledge without paying for it. I have started my own Dakota publishing company, Wiyounkihipi Productions, to help keep the language part of the tribe’s communal culture. We all should be aware of the need to both speak and protect our languages.

Uŋktómi & the Copyrights of the Dakota/Lakota Language

Vector Illustration, 2021.

Uŋktómi was born as Ksá (Wisdom), the son of Grandfather Íŋyaŋ, the rock spirit. However, his ability to outsmart all, even himself, led him to being banished to roam Uŋčí Makhá (Grandmother Earth) as Uŋktómi the spider after one of his tricks backfired.

Despite his banishment, he was still delighted in playing jokes on everything; he would fool animals, humans and spirits to get something from them, even just a laugh, and he would cheat and lie to get his way. There are many stories about Uŋktómi that teach us a lesson:

Uŋktómi was the first being that matured, he saw all the animals grow and so he gave them all their names. He invented language and taught it to the animals, even humans.

Nothing delighted Uŋktómi more than seeing people fight, so after seeing the people speak the Dakhóta and Lakȟóta language for many years, he decided to play a new trick. Uŋktómi can take on any shape, so one day, he changed himself into a wašíču and went to every reservation to teach them different ways to write Dakhóta or Lakȟóta in the English alphabet. He could outsmart anyone and so he taught them about foreign gods too, so they wouldn’t suspect they were really talking to Uŋktómi.

He then turned himself into a young man so he could spy on the teachers in the classrooms. He saw that everyone’s pride thought their method of spelling was the best so they would fight each other over which was the correct way to spell. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer Dakhóta and Lakȟóta children were actually speaking their language and Uŋktómi laughed at the foolish adults who fought each other.

He laughed even more when foreign wašíču began to copyright the Lakȟóta and Dakhóta language and sell it back to the reservations. Uŋktómi could see the people didn’t learn from the ways wašíču always use paperwork to steal from Indians: Wašíču see a way to profit in everything and tricked the elders into signing papers they couldn’t understand that let the wašíču own the stories. These stories were the ones that the people had told over a thousand generations, even the stories about Uŋktómi were stolen. And although the reservations were very poor, they made the wašíču rich by buying the language books they could barely afford. 

Uŋktómi saw many Lakȟóta and Dakhóta who would fall in love with those wašíču, defending them, even giving them Indian names over the many Dakhóta/Lakȟóta children who had only English names. They would fight with their own people who saw past Uŋktómi’s tricks, who tried to warn them. They wouldn’t listen and did nothing as their own language was stolen from them, besides hurt their own people who saw the truth. This was one of Uŋktómi’s best tricks to date of how he tricked the Dakhóta and Lakȟóta into fighting over his gift of language, they say.

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Indigenous Languages are Tribal cultural property

Indigenous languages have existed for thousands of years as oral languages only, stories and histories being passed down through the generations. They are cultural property of all tribal members. However, when those languages are written down in foreign alphabets, they are at risk of being copyrighted and tribal members have lost their rights to generational stories. For years, Indigenous languages have been “preserved” by universities, by researchers, but who owns the copyright to these resources? Not the tribes. There is a strong need for tribes and researchers to work together with written agreements that maintain the tribe as the rightful owners of their cultural property, not outside bodies.

More and more people are becoming aware of the dangers of losing their rights to their stories when it comes to teaching the language to their tribal youth. When the copyrighted language texts are used by community members, they have been hit with copyright violations. When family members want to have any control over recorded videos of their grandparents by outside organizations, they are denied the rights and respect. The popular Lakota Language Consortium is one such organization is profiting off Indigenous languages and denying tribal members from using the materials without paying for their own language. These are the poorest reservations in the United States. The leaders of the LLC are Europeans (not even European Americans) and make $100,000 a year selling Indigenous languages back to tribes.

Lakota Language Reclamation Project

Meanwhile, there are Indigenous language activities who now realize the dangers of not protecting tribal data in today’s world. The Lakota Language Reclamation Project is one such grassroots organization: We are free Lakota and Dakota people reclaiming our language, the language which our ancestors have spoken for thousands of years. We believe our Language should be open-sourced and made available to all Lakota/Dakota people, children, families and communities who want to learn our language. It is our belief that outside entities shall not have the power to copyright and/or profit and/or make claim to anything in our language without the Lakota people’s permission.

If others wish to use our language, they must respect our communities, elders and Tribal and Data Sovereignty by getting permission from us: the ultimate authorities and not colleges/universities, outside entities who organized it under copyright, outside researchers, anthros, and linguists. From us. If outside entities are to profit off of it, they must adopt the royalties model with our elders and communities, always honoring Tribal Sovereignty. Outside entities should not be able to have the power nor authority to disseminate our data with other outside entities however they wish.

The data and the direction of our language revitalization and reclamation must rest in the hands of the Lakxota/Dakhota people with our elders leading, our Lakxota/Dakhota learners and reclaimers sitting shotgun, and our allies riding humbly in the backseat. Enforcing Data Sovereignty is the most powerful step we must take, as Lakxota/Dakhota people to ensure that we sustain our movement into the future.

Chatka he miye lo.

(Ray Taken Alive)

Lakota Language Reclamation Project.

The New Yorker recently covered this same copyright issue happening to the Penobscot tribe in a very well-written article: “How did a self-taught linguist come to own an Indigenous Language?

Frank Siebert enforced his own thinking on the Penobscot language and culture, created a difficult spelling system that “preserves” the language without making easy to teach to new generations, and then donated the copyrights of all his research materials and dictionary to the American Philosophical Society, without any thought to the people and tribe he had used to make a name for himself.

Unktomi artwork by Marlena Myles
Unktomi artwork by Marlena Myles
Unktomi artwork by Marlena Myles

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