With only 2 to 5 percent of children currently speaking Lakota,
Thomas Short Bull, president of the Oglala Lakota College, said the
time has come to raise the alarm.
As the day begins at the Lakota Language Immersion School, a
young boy passes an abalone bowl of sage to each child sitting on
the floor in a circle. Children from kindergarten through third
grade gather for the morning ceremony with prayers, songs, and a
short discussion of things to know and remember.
Didier Dupont, school coordinator, described the importance
of the process. He said, "We have a student whose father was shipped
to Afghanistan. We remind everybody to remember her dad in their
prayers. During the prayer, listen to the songs in your heart, help
each other be good, listen... and the language is there."
The children in the immersion school do everything that children
do in school everywhere; they learn math, science, language arts,
gym, music, art and more. The difference is that it is all done
in the Lakota language. The academic standards are comparable to
other schools, but the school has its own curriculum, designed by
the Education Department of the Oglala Lakota College. "We are maintaining
a compliance with most of the State standards, but as a private
school we don't have to," DuPont said.
The majority of the 27 children come from English speaking homes,
and only four come from homes where Lakota is used every day. Dupont
said encouraging the children to use the language can be a slow
transition process, but they are making strides. "The children have
gone from "Blue Soldier" (colonization) to the television and computer,"
he said. "We can't expect them to come in in September and be speaking
Lakota by March. Very realistically, they will be using the language
within the second year."
Dupont said the students use the language they have mastered
in the classroom, and are comfortable using the language that they
know. "All of the students use some words, phrases, and expressions.
The most advanced actually use all they know from the school and
from the family's use."
The school became a full immersion school last August after
several members of the administration visited a similar school in
Hawaii. It was then that the commitment to the program deepened.
Dupont said, "After one year we are already where the Hawaiian program
was after four or five years. It isn't that we are doing a better
job, it is because we are benefiting from their experience."
The need to go to full immersion is seen by many as an emergency
situation. "It's already late for the language. This should have
been done 25 years ago when we still had a lot of speakers. The
linguistic pressure is very drastic. If you look at the ratios barely
10 percent are speakers, and among the speakers there are not that
many users," Dupont said.
Short Bull, who has been involved in language revitalization
for almost a decade, said, "In 2005, the elders said we should preserve
the language. We were in the Board Room with college center directors,
and I asked them, of the children four to six year olds, how many
of those children speak the language? We came up with about 10,
out of about 200 to 400 children. So if it's 200 students, its 5
percent, if its 400, that's 2 percent."
According to Short Bull about 80 percent of those age 80 and
above are still speakers. With each succeeding decade it decreases
correspondingly. "So at 50 years, 50 percent are speakers, at 40,
40 percent and so on. We are looking at the loss of language in
50-100 years. It is one of the most challenging things we do, because
what effected first generation people continually affects all Indian
While all agree retaining the language is important, another
key element becomes apparent in the study of the language. According
to all at the Immersion School, language and culture are intermingled.
Holding onto the language means keeping a clear view on the culture
for generations to come.
Darlene Last Horse, one of the teachers at the immersion school,
Dupont said, "Darlene is our pillar in terms of language culture
and history. She is our precious one we go to."
Born and raised south of Kyle, Last Horse grew up speaking Lakota
within her family. "I grew up knowing the sacred ways and prayers.
Praying to the great spirit is not important to everybody but to
my family it is," she said quietly. She noted that when spiritual
leaders pray it is most often in Lakota and there are clues to the
culture within the language, so Lakota values are threatened by
loss of language.
"The parents want their children to speak Lakota," Last Horse
said, and added that grandparents have expressed gratitude for the
school. "It's great to teach the kids; when you can teach them to
say a word and they say it with the sound, it makes you understand
they are saying the word. They start conversing with you," Last
Horse said with a smile.
Within the school, the teachers speak only in Lakota but since
the students are not fluent, other methods of learning are integrated
in the classroom. "We have several approaches that are used together
and one after another. For math, they learn the shapes, and we are
still using beads and pieces of color" for description, Dupont said.
Pointing out the steps for planting, the words are written on
the board in Lakota but illustrated with pictures and symbols. "There
are clues in pictures alongside the Lakota words. In immersion school
we use words, actions, signing, and drawings to describe the words."
Translation is not encouraged because that causes them to maintain
the connection between both languages and the dominant language
will subdue the other. "It is important for them to use the language
they feel. Translating is not the point," Dupont said.
Teacher Dusty Nelson, 28, is not yet fluent in the language
but has been committed to learning it most of her life. Taking Lakota
language classes since she was in kindergarten, she said she always
had the desire to learn but studying one hour a week at Red Cloud
made it impossible.
When she came to the Oglala Lakota College, she took Lakota
Language 1, 2, and 3. "The desire was there, but you don't hear
it," she said with sadness. "Speakers are too few and far between."
Since Nelson has been at the immersion school she is becoming more
comfortable with the language. "I listen to KILI Lakota language
classes on Saturday morning and I used to only understand a few
words. Now I am understanding much more. It's exciting!"
Now spending her days fully immersed in the language, Nelson
said, "It has changed the way I think. You go through your life
knowing one language and you react as things come. You use the language
you know. Now I think in Lakota, in my mind I respond in Lakota.
The more I understand, the more I grasp the language, the more I
start to think, 'that's not something Lakota people do' and I do
it the Lakota way."
Nelson said the movement to learn the language is "not only
here. I have friends from Standing Rock and we trade stories. It's
like little support system."
"Whenever I hear people pray in Lakota, I feel what they feel.
I feel more connected to what they are saying," Nelson said. "It's
a deeper meaning. I can translate but it loses its meaning." Nelson
laughed, "When I was younger, my mom's mom and my mom's mom's mom,
they would just laugh and laugh, but they would say it loses its
meaning in translation or they would tell me in English and it wasn't
funny. I would feel left out. My great grandparents Nancy and Bill
Horn Cloud, they were real traditional people. They carried all
the values of the old days, and as a young child I looked up to
them. My great grandmother would look at me and say, 'These young
kids don't even care.' I wanted to honor her by caring about the
"For me, in my opinion," Nelson said, "it's a hunger and a thirst
and a need to be met. As Lakota people it's something inborn where
we can say, well, I am not going to speak Lakota and I am going
to live in this place or that place away from the reservation. But
I think we will always have that inside of us. We miss home but
it isn't the place of home, it's an idea of who we are, it's the
traditions, the way of life, our history. We are all connected through
Short Bull said the answer to bringing back the language lies
in speaking it. He said that the Maoris and Hawaiians are doing
well with preserving their language, because there is a conscious
effort for the parents to be learning it while their kids are learning
"But even among the Hawaii there is only 15% speaking the language
and we are probably at same percentage as the Hawaiians. As the
decades go by they will be increasing but we will be decreasing
because they are making a really conscious effort to preserve the
Short Bull said the real way to prevent losing the language
is for the parents to learn and speak along with the children. "In
the immersion school they are learning to speak it 100 percent of
the time but they go home and no one is speaking the language. Can
those students become speakers? That is the million dollar question."
The school is prepared for the school to progress to a 100 percent
Lakota language setting from grades K-5, with hopes of obtaining
the funding to go to k-8.
"In the later '60s-'70s, the schools on the reservation went
to one class period a day speaking Lakota. It's been 40 years,"
Short Bull said, noting that the University of Indiana made a presentation
showing how over 40 years, not one fluent speaker was produced by
teaching one class a day. Short Bull said that whether or not this
program has been effective won't be known until these students are
in their teens.
Short Bull said that knowing the language, "Strengthens a person.
We are losing our spirituality. Going to sweats and Sundances makes
it more relevant to you. You can't get the same translation if you
don't learn the spirituality in the language. The Council of Elders
said we have to do something about it, but I don't know how to raise
the alarm," Short Bull said.
The Lakota Language Immersion School students seem to have absorbed
the message already. Rosalynn Mousseaux, second grader, said, "The
thing I like best about speaking Lakota? There are no bad words."
(Contact Christina Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org)