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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 1, 2004 - Issue 112


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Panel: Kids Key to Saving Language

by Terry Woster Argus Leader

OACOMA - Native American students in South Dakota schools will be more successful in their studies if native language and culture are integral parts of the curriculum, a Todd County educator believes.

Dottie LeBeau is part of an effort to revive the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota languages, both in schools and among adult Native Americans. It's a way to connect a people with their culture, says the school improvement coordinator and curriculum director at Todd County Schools.

"Losing the language means losing the culture,'' LeBeau said. "We need to know who we are because it makes a difference in who our children are.''

She cites studies that suggest 90 percent of Lakota people will be unable to speak their language within a decade.

Besides her duties at Todd County, LeBeau recently headed a language advocacy committee that recommended weaving the Lakota language and culture throughout schools, whether tribal, public or private. She and other members of her group made that recommendation during a summit on Native American education hosted at Oacoma last week by state Education Secretary Rick Melmer.

"Children who are most proficient in their native language are also most proficient in another language and other courses,'' LeBeau told the summit participants. "When we're talking of achievement, when we're talking of No Child Left Behind, we need to have the language. We need to have the culture for our children to succeed.''

Officials at some schools with a high percentage of Native American students agree.

The Smee School District near Wakpala last year added an instructor to teach the Lakota language in each classroom. At the same time, the school began developing a plan to integrate Lakota language and culture into lesson plans at all grade levels, according to Chief Executive Officer Susan Smit.

Smit said the addition of Lakota language and culture to the routine school day was among reasons for an enrollment increase. Parents wanted to send their children to a school that included Lakota values and language, she said.

Marty Indian School hired a Lakota language teacher for the first time this year, said Russell Leonard, elementary principal and acting superintendent. The instructor, Redwing Thomas, is fluent in the native language, Leonard said.

"Each day, he goes into each of the classrooms, kindergarten through fourth grade, and spends time on the language,'' Leonard said. "In addition to that, once a week he does an Indian studies program for each class, going in and talking about the culture, history, the things these students should know.''

The effort hasn't been in place long enough for a firm evaluation, but Leonard said, "We think it's having a good effect. It's something that looks like it will be a good idea.''

Incorporating native language and culture - a relatively recent development in K-12 schools - has been stressed at tribal colleges and universities for several years. Stephanie Charging Eagle, head of graduate studies at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is a member of LeBeau's language advocacy committee. She shared the presentation at the recent Indian education summit, saying the effort can't be limited to schools.

"The schools can't do it alone,'' Charging Eagle said. "The whole community has to get involved.''

That's LeBeau's ultimate goal.

"We should work it into everything, tribal council meetings, everything,'' she said.

The summit report from LeBeau's group said there have been efforts for 30 years to introduce the Lakota language into schools. None of those attempts produced many fluent speakers, the report said. It also said the number of people who can speak the native language is falling.

"Time is running out,'' the report said. "Based on current estimates, within the next generation, the Lakota language will be beyond recovery. Ten years ago, more than half of the population on the Pine Ridge had no speaking knowledge of Lakota. Today, three-quarters of the population is unable to speak Lakota. Within 10 years or less, 90 percent of the population will not be able to speak Lakota.''

Since most fluent speakers are older members of the tribes, their deaths hasten the loss of the language, LeBeau said.

"It's really sad when we lose an elder,'' she said. "They take with them the language.''

Two years ago, Oglala Lakota College received a $420,000, three-year grant from the Health and Human Services Department's Administration for Native Americans. One of the goals of the grant is to give college staff members an incentive to learn the language. The Native American Languages Act of 1992 encouraged such grants. Congress passed that law as a way to help Native Americans retain and revive their language.

As part of its grant process, Oglala Lakota College researched the loss of language among Lakota people. Part of that research showed that in 1993, 15 percent of Lakota people spoke their native language fluently, 25 percent had limited ability to use the language and 60 percent had little or no Lakota language ability.

The research, done in 1996, predicted that by 2003, 10 percent would speak the language, 15 percent would have limited ability and 75 percent would have little or no language knowledge. By 2013, the college's study said, 3 percent would speak the language, 7 percent would have limited ability and 90 percent would have little or no ability to use the Lakota language.

Even in 1993, that research said, only 1 percent of Lakota people younger than 21 were able to speak the language.

The presentation that LeBeau's group made to the Indian education summit listed several proposed courses of action for students, communities, educators, schools, parents and education agencies. Education agencies should provide waivers from some regulations if necessary to ensure that students being taught in the native language weren't disadvantaged, the report suggested. It recommended opportunities for teachers to be certified to teach the Lakota language.

Saving language
A group advocating increased use of Native American language in South Dakota schools recently presented proposals during a summit organized by Gov. Mike Rounds. Among the proposals for schools were:

  • Make sure language policies and practices in school are consistent with the desires of parents and community.
  • Provide follow-through support for local language curriculum advisory committees and incentives for students to participate in language programs.
  • Set aside times and places where students can practice language skills in an immersion environment.
  • Incorporate appropriate traditional cultural values and beliefs in all teaching.
  • Provide an in-depth culture and language orientation program for all new teachers and administrators, including participation in an immersion camp with local elders.
  • Provide Nakota, Dakota, Lakota language courses for students in every high school in South Dakota, especially those with native students enrolled.

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