Like many members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge
Reservation, high school senior Kristian Big Crow never spoke his
native Lakota language as a child. With only 6,000 fluent Lakota
speakers left in the world, there are few opportunities for young
Lakota students like Big Crow to learn the language. Which is precisely
why teachers and administrators at Red Cloud Indian School, located
just outside the town of Pine Ridge, spent the last five years developing
the nation's first comprehensive K-12 Lakota language curriculum.
Today, Lakota is spoken frequently across Red Cloud's campus
and a new generation of fluent Lakota speakers is emerging.
Students like Big Crow say learning Lakota has provided a deeper
connection to Native identity.
"I was completely frightened to speak Lakota when I came
to Red Cloud my freshman year. But I feel so much more confident
now," explains Big Crow. "Now even when I'm in Rapid
City, my brother and I make a point of speaking the language to
each other. It makes us feel proud to be Lakota. Because of the
language program at Red Cloud, I have a better understanding of
Tribal members say the Lakota language is inextricably tied
to the cultural heritage and identity of their people. But for many
decades, this highly endangered language has balanced on the brink
of extinction. The cultural assimilation policies enforced by the
U.S. government beginning in the 19th century forced Lakota students
to give up their native languages and to learn and speak English
exclusively. As a result, the number of fluent Lakota speakers plummeted.
Red Cloud Indian School, founded 125 years ago at the prompting
of Chief Red Cloud, began teaching Lakota in 1969 in order to sustain
the language as an integral part of Lakota culture. But according
to Red Cloud's Executive Vice President Robert Brave Heart
Sr., the obstacles to teaching Lakota effectively were significant.
"We train all staff and volunteers to
learn how to use Lakota inside and outside the classroom. So no
matter who you are, where you're from, or what you do at the school,
you are given the wonderful task of using Lakota as much as possible."
"It was extremely difficult to find Lakota speakers with the
ability to actually teach the language, and textbooks and resources
simply did not exist," says Brave Heart. "Few students ever achieved
true fluency and in 2007, we decided we had to transform
our approach to teaching Lakota in order to really help save the
Six years later, Red Cloud is just putting the finishing touches
on its comprehensive K-12 Lakota language curriculum the
first of its kind in the world. Developed in partnership with experts
at the American Indian Studies Research Institute (AISRI) at Indiana
University, the curriculum was carefully designed to build knowledge
and vocabulary sequentially from kindergarten all the way through
"At other institutions, the Lakota language
is not treated as respectfully as it is here at Red Cloud."
During the fourth year of the curriculum's implementation, language
test scores at Red Cloud jumped up by 84 percent and teachers
and administrators knew they were on to something. Today, more than
70 percent of students report using Lakota at home, in school and
in their communities. Additionally, 58 percent of grandparents
many belonging to the last generation of fluent Lakota speakers
say they hear their grandchildren speak Lakota more frequently.
For Brave Heart, those statistics point to a renewal of cultural
pride that is urgently needed.
"Hearing even our youngest students speak Lakota is inspiring,
but it's not just about the language. This curriculum is giving
Red Cloud students a positive sense of their culture, heritage and
identity," Brave Heart says. "After many generations of
cultural loss, they are learning to reclaim and celebrate their
Lakota identity. Countless partners around the country have shared
their support to help Red Cloud develop this curriculum. It's
a joy to watch that dream be realized."
All of Red Cloud's 600 students from the youngest to
the oldest learn Lakota through the school's language curriculum.
Philomine Lakota, who teaches the most advanced high school language
class, says the program has equipped her with the linguistic tools
and support she needs to continue the work of keeping the language
and culture alive.
"When I came here seven years ago, my goal was to help
make Lakota language classes just as respectable as science or math,"
she explains. "At other institutions, the Lakota language is
not treated as respectfully as it is here at Red Cloud. Other schools
tend to focus simply on learning colors, numbers or animals, but
they don't focus on putting it all together to really teach
how the language works."
With the curriculum nearly complete, Red Cloud teachers and
administrators are now working to integrate Lakota language into
every facet of campus life, inside and outside the classroom. After-school
Lakota conversation groups encourage students to practice and, already,
basketball games are announced in Lakota. The idea, says Melissa
Strickland, the on-site Lakota language project coordinator and
the liaison between Red Cloud and Indiana University, is to make
speaking Lakota a normal part of every day at Red Cloud.
"We are beginning to incorporate the language into every
aspect of our activities," explains Strickland. "We train
all staff and volunteers to learn how to use Lakota inside and outside
the classroom. So no matter who you are, where you're from, or what
you do at the school, you are given the wonderful task of using
Lakota as much as possible."
With the new school year in full swing, Strickland is finalizing
learning materials to accompany a new set of Lakota textbooks that
will be released early next year. She and other language specialists
have taken every possible step to ensure all Red Cloud's language
resources are culturally responsive and tested in the classroom
by incorporating edits and feedback from students, teachers, key
community members, and fluent Lakota speakers.
"You can't beat sitting down with someone face to face,"
says Strickland. "This program is unique because it's being
developed in-house by the staff and community."
And despite the physical isolation of the reservation-based
school, Red Cloud is also working to ensure the Lakota language
curriculum is on the cutting edge of technology. Through the use
of an innovative, online modular learning platform called Moodle,
teachers and students have web-based access to all curriculum materials,
tests and features such as a searchable Lakota dictionary, Lakota
audio recordings and other multimedia resources.
"Students are already making use of this new technology.
Only a few weeks into the new school year juniors and seniors are
already using a Lakota chat room to write to each other in Lakota,"
says Strickland. "It's simply amazing to see."
"Today, more than 70 percent of students
report using Lakota at home, in school and in their communities.
Additionally, 58 percent of grandparents many belonging
to the last generation of fluent Lakota speakers say they
hear their grandchildren speak Lakota more frequently."
Ultimately, Red Cloud plans to share the curriculum with other
schools in the region and across the country. This week Brave Heart,
Strickland and others who were involved in the curriculum's
development will be presenting at the conference of the National
Indian Education Association (NIEA), the premier advocacy organization
supporting educational opportunities for American Indians, Alaska
Natives, and Native Hawaiians. They believe the curriculum can serve
as an effective model for other educational institutions and organizations
teaching indigenous languages.
Teacher Philomine Lakota will be part of the conference presentation,
and plans to share how Red Cloud's curriculum has transformed
the way she is able to teach Lakota language. Each day, she says,
she can see the language of her ancestors once again coming to life.
"A student of mine works at Pizza Hut. When I go in and he sees
me, he speaks to me in Lakota. Before, the language was just contained
in the classroom but now students are using it in the hallways
and beyond. That really empowers our culture. And it gives me hope
for the future."
The Lakota Language Project was made possible through funding
from the Administration for Native Americans, Grotto Foundation,
Native Voices Endowment at the Endangered Language Fund, Shakopee
Mdewakanton Sioux Community, Emilie Kolat Hesemeyer Charitable Trust,
First Presbyterian Church of Haddonfield, NJ, Sieben Foundation,
Robin Camble Grinnell Foundation, Enkel Foundation, Raskob Foundation
for Catholic Activities, Dr. Scholl Foundation, and generous individual
donations to Red Cloud Indian School.
For more information about the Lakota Language Project at Red
Cloud Indian School visit www.redcloudschool.org/LLP
Since language, culture and identity are intimately associated,
the loss of Native languages is a dire trend for the survival and
identities of entire cultures. The Lakota Language Program at Red
Cloud Indian School aims to revitalize the living use of the Lakota
language and, therefore, encourage strong and healthy Lakota identities
among Red Cloud students and their families. We also hope to become
a model for other indigenous languages to follow in the further
preservation of language across the world. We envision a future
in which students graduate from high school as fluent speakers of
their Lakota language, with a stronger sense of self, and an everlasting
connection to their heritage.