Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

April 7, 2024

Sacred Language: Can It Be Boxed and Sold

Internal documents describe the turmoil at Lakota Language Consortium and Language Conservancy 

By Brenda Norrell, Censored News, April 5, 2024

Language carries the stories, culture and the sacred. "If I were to speak the true Lakota language, you would not be able to translate it," Delores Taken Alive said before her passing.

Now the question is whether sacred language can be owned, whether sacred language can be put in a box and sold.

The internal documents of two non-profits, the Lakota Language Consortium, and Language Conservancy, reveal the turmoil and financial collapse of the non-profits which were operated by two non-Indians from Austria and the Czech Republic.
The executive director of Lakota Language Consortium, who also served as CEO of the Language Conservancy, was recently replaced.

The non-Indian CEO's lavish spending included his $90 Scotch with dinner, staying at the most expensive hotels, spending thousands on suites for speakers, and buying a plane and building before he exited the non-profit, leaving it in debt and owing IRS taxes -- all the while claiming to be preserving Indigenous languages.

The money poured out for a public relations firm to fix the damage, while the CEO was bringing in more than $200,000 a year in salary, money derived from selling Native languages.

Internal documents, letters to the board of the Language Conservancy, viewed by Censored News, question who authorized the purchase of a million dollar building at its headquarters in Bloomington, Indiana, and a plane.

The documents point out the lavish expenditures which drained the bank accounts of the two non-profits, whose revenues come from the sell of Native language books and learning materials, and grants and donations.

Staff to Board "It's essentially a Ponzi scheme"

But the letters to the board go far deeper, documenting unfair treatment of staff, and requests to commit fraud by falsifying grant documents. One staff member described staff "working shoulder-to-shoulder in a windowless room during the first COVID surges" and being "spread out across a windowless basement."

The series of desperate letters to the board of the Language Conservancy in January states the entire staff was ready to resign in February, if the board did not take action. Besides the purchase of the building and plane, staff and board members questioned who authorized the targeted attack on a Lakota language teacher, Ray Taken Alive. They questioned who authorized payment for legal fees to take him to court.

The action to silence Ray Taken Alive, the grandson of Delores Taken Alive, came as Ray sought the return of the original recordings and photos of his grandmother, a lifelong teacher of the Lakota language.

In a practical sense, it was clear that the non-profit heads wanted to silence Ray because of his posts on social media. Ray questioned the non-profits claims to ownership and copyrights of his grandmother's photos and words.

Ray also posted videos of the Czech linguist who co-headed the non-profits performing "tribal dances." With Lakota humor, Ray characterized the non-Indians who had lassoed the struggle to save the language. Others responded, saying that big money grants are now the "new buffalo."

Ray faced losing his teaching license as a Lakota language teacher in court. In the end, Ray maintained his teaching license, but he continues to seek the return of his grandmother's original work, words and photos to the Taken Alive family.

In the desperate series of letters to the Language Conservancy board in January, a staff member questions the hiring of a pubic relations firm to take attention away from Ray Taken Alive.

The letter said the public relations firm "is at best gathering the unneeded attention of non-Native, non-client national media and at worst is merely stroking" the ego of the CEO to continue a lucrative contract on the backs of important language projects.

The Language Conservancy claims it is rescuing endangered languages in Australia, Canada, Mexico and the U.S.

However, internal documents show it embroiled in a state of turmoil. Shown here is an internal document to the board, dated January of 2024.

The Language Conservancy tax records show the CEO's salary increased each year in recent years, even though the non-profit was in the red, showing a minus for both income and assets in 2020.

The CEO's salary increased from $90,000 to $113,000 in the last tax year, 2022. The staff questioned who authorized the salary increases each year. He received a second salary from the Lakota Language Consortium, where he was executive director. The second salary was more than $100,000.

Language Conservancy staff and board members question who authorized the purchase of this plane. The FAA registration shows it is owned by the Language Conservancy.

The Language Conservancy tax document in 2020 does not specify the purchase of a plane. There is a purchase, under Land, Buildings and Equipment, of "Other" for $360,964.

Internal documents of the board of Language Conservancy show its conference last year resulted in a loss of $250,000. Keynote speakers were given hotel suites costing thousands of dollars a night, at the International Conference on Indigenous Language Documentation, Education, and Revitalization (ICILDER) on October 12-14 in Bloomington, Indiana, internal documents reveal. One staff member called it "a sham."

In one letter to the Language Conservancy board, a staff member reported that they had been asked to falsify grant information, and inflate the numbers. The letter states: "What was projected in hours/salaries was a real cost of approximately $30,000 to TLC, yet the budget reflected a total cost of approximately $74,000."

It also states that projections for upcoming projects for Africa were inflated.

The employee told the board that they were instructed to change employee salaries in a grant proposal -- from the previously reported $30 an hour submitted to $100 an hour for two employees. This resulted in an "artificially inflated budget," the internal document states.

It is unknown how many Native language speakers were compelled to volunteer --  and how many were actually paid $30 an hour, or $100 an hour, or whatever the amount stated was, that was sought after, and received, in grant funding.

Selling the Lakota Language

The Lakota Language Consortium, operated by two non-Indians, is in a state of financial ruin, according to its tax return for 2022. Its net income is shown as a minus, and a loan is shown which was taken out to pay unpaid IRS taxes.

The two non-Indians, from Austria, and the Czech Republic, who headed up the Lakota Language Consortium each made more than $100,000 a year, as shown on the 2022 tax return, which is the most recent one posted at ProPublica Explorer.

Their salaries were paid by incoming grants and donations, and selling the Lakota language. The same non-Indian executive director headed up a second non-profit, the Language Conservancy, using Indigenous languages from around the world, and received another salary there for more than $100,000 a year.

The tax return shows a loan, an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, was made to pay $408,500 in owed federal income taxes.

  (Above) Tax documents at ProPublica Explorer 

Lakotas point out that both the Lakota Language Consortium and Language Conservancy are operating illegally because they lack Institutional Review Boards.

The Institutional Review Boards, or IRBs, review research studies to ensure that they comply with applicable regulations, meet commonly accepted ethical standards, follow institutional policies, and adequately protect research participants.

Meanwhile, National Public Radio aired a program last week, "In Lakota Nation, people are asking who does a language belong to?"

NPR begins by sharing the words of Delores Taken Alive. The program includes the words of Ray Taken Alive, and his attorney in court, Nicole “Nikki” Ducheneaux, 44, Cheyenne River Lakota, of Big Fire law firm, who passed to the Spirit World last year.

NPR's program includes the words of the new executive director of Lakota Language Consortium. However, NPR fails to point out that both the Lakota Language Consortium, and the Language Conservancy, were banned by the Standing Rock Sioux Nation. The ban was passed in a resolution passed by the Standing Rock Tribal Council.

NPR points out that a language cannot be copyrighted. However, books and materials can be copyrighted. Ultimately, however, after the passage of time, those end up in the public domain.

The United Nations has failed to adhere to the ban by the Standing Rock Lakota Nation. The U.N. granted the Language Conservancy consultative status. Further, a New York trust has failed to honor the tribe's ban and continued to promote the non-profit with funding and interns.

Read more and listen:

Lakota Elders Helped a White Man Preserve Their Language. Then He Tried To Sell It Back to Them. By Graham Lee Brewer, NBC News

“No matter how it was collected, where it was collected, when it was collected, our language belongs to us," said Ray Taken Alive, a Lakota teacher. 

STANDING ROCK INDIAN RESERVATION, S.D. — Ray Taken Alive had been fighting for this moment for two years: At his urging, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council was about to take the rare and severe step of banishing a nonprofit organization from the tribe’s land.

"On May 3 (2022) the tribal council voted nearly unanimously to banish the Lakota Language Consortium — along with its co-founder Wilhelm Meya and its head linguist, Jan Ullrich — from setting foot on the reservation."

The article includes the use and abuse of the Lakota's Calico Winter Count, the sacred pictorial history, by the non-profit's executive director.

The Acoma Pueblo governor tells why the Pueblo severed its contract with the Language Consortium. Acoma's governor said the non-profit tried to abscond with Acoma's Keres language data.

New York Foundation Ignores Standing Rock Ban, Promotes Non-Indians Operating Non-Profits

Before he was replaced in February of 2024, the CEO promoted the non-profits in New York. The New York Community Trust, the state’s oldest public charity, awarded nonprofit The Language Conservancy a $44,000 grant in April, 2022, to teach the Lakota language, via the Marcia Ashman Fund for Children. It was aware of the ban by the Standing Rock Lakota Nation.

"Lakota speakers were in New York City to help keep the language alive. They participated in the Lakota Language Weekend at the nonprofit American Indian Community House,: the Gothamist reported last year, on Feb. 27, 2023. "So we've been doing an event in New York for the last four or five years, and it really has a great turnout."

The Standing Rock Lakota Nation's resolution banishes both non-profits, stating elders have been misled, and the non-profits are attempting to sell the language back to the people. Further, the resolution states First Nation speakers must be fairly compensated for their labor.

Read Standing Rock Lakota Nation's full resolution, passed May 3, 2022, which bans the two non-profits at:

Copyright Censored News. Content may not be used without consent from each original creator of content.

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