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Native Sun News: Addressing the crisis in the Lakota language

The following story was written and reported by Christina Rose, Native Sun News Associate Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Darlene Last Horse teaches classes in Lakota.

Classes include traditional arts and crafts like these No Face Dolls.

Addressing the Lakota language crisis
By Christina Rose
Native Sun News Associate Editor

KYLE — 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 people.”

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.

Introducing 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 language.”

“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 that.”

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 it.

“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 language.”

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

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