ALLEN, SD - The education of Native American children has evolved
since Betty Robertson attended a Pine Ridge boarding school as a
Back then, speaking Lakota was taboo.
"They punished students who were caught speaking the language,"
she says. "But I was really, really careful so the people I
was connected to in the dorms, we were able to speak to each other
in Lakota when no matrons were around to monitor us."
Now, so many years later, Robertson has come out of retirement
to resume her career in education and help students and other teachers
at American Horse School to learn and speak Lakota.
Horse is a tribal school serving students from pre-kindergarten
through eighth grade in Allen on the southeast part of the Pine
Ridge Reservation. Its part of an effort across the reservation
to preserve the Lakota language.
"I think it's very important because all along people tell
us, my generation and older generations, keep reminding us that
the language is fading," Robertson said. "But in my heart
I believe it's not fading."
Its use, however, was long discouraged and has only recently
begun to make a comeback. The trick is translating what's in Roberton's
heart to what's spoken in the classrooms and hallways and playgrounds.
After years of planning, the Lakota language immersion program
is in its first full year at American Horse.
"It's like when you watch a little plant grow and you see
the sprout come up. And then the sprout gets a stem and the stem
gets more branches and the branches finally bloom," says Francis
White Lance. "We're at the blooming stage."
It's one of those educational plants that is growing under White
Lance's oversight as director of Lakota History, Philosophy and
Language at American Horse. It starts in his classroom, crowded
with crafts and artifacts and cultural icons of the Lakota people
and their ways.
White Lance says Lakota children are hungry for their history
"They come back and want to know, where's the knowledge
at," he says. "And it's up to us to try to give it to
them. So that's what I try to return to the kids."
Kids come to his class to touch their heritage, and learn more
about themselves. With the language immersion, they will soon be
able to express themselves the traditional Lakota way.
"The parents really wanted that from the beginning. And
they had always relied on the school to teach that," White
Lance said. "So now we are teaching that."
The plan is for students, teachers and family members to be
having conversations in Lakota by the end of the school year.
The students must take their language lessons home to practice
with their families. And teachers, Native and non-Native, are expected
to learn too.
"So you have white teachers, who are excited to learn the
language simultaneously," White Lance said.
First grade teacher Bonnie Hopper is inspired by the challenge.
"The kids are using it. I'm using it. It's being reinforced
during the day," Hopper says. "And then they go home using
Hopper understands all too well what's at stake here and at
other schools across the reservation that also work to revive Lakota.
"If we don't get it back into our school system, they'll
lose it forever," she says.
Instead, the almost-lost is being found, day after day, student
after student, word after word.
American Horse School is a small Public Law (PL) 100-297 Elementary
Grant school located in the heart of the Oglala Lakota Nation in
Allen, South Dakota. Nearly all students enrolled at the school
are members of a federally recognized tribe with the majority being
members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.