North Dakota – Many native American languages have been lost through forced assimilation. But a new language preservation effort before congress aims to ensure they’re never forgotten.
The Lakota language is sacred to the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. But, few tribal members are fluent in their native tongue. A bill before congress could help schools preserve their language.
Students at the Lakota Language Nest speak a language that many have forgotten.
“We’re committed to staying in Lakota. So, what that means is the curriculum, everything that we do is in Lakota language,” says teacher Tipiziwin Young.
It’s a lot like your typical pre-school class. Students make pictures and sing songs.
But these students are the building blocks for cultural preservation.
“You look at these young kids as the possibilities. They will be the future. And being that they know the language, they’ll be able to converse in the language,” says Michael Moore of Sitting Bull College.
The Native American Language Immersion Student Achievement Act would establish a grant program for preschool through college. And schools like these could benefit from the program.
“With the possibility of funding, there is a possibility of more teachers, there is a possibility of a space, the possibility of an expansion of a school, help with the curriculum. There are a lot of possibilities. And that’s exciting,” says Young.
Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault says the Lakota language is sacred. And it’s a very real fear that the language could become extinct.
“Our language and our ceremony are one. So, when you speak the language, you’re actually in the ceremony. So, that’s the teaching behind the importance of trying to retain that language. And hopefully, when the elders are gone, the language is not,” says Archambault.
Young says it’s easy to feel like an outsider at spiritual events when you don’t understand the language. She says she’ll never be a fluent speaker, but it’s been a phenomenal experience understanding and connecting to her culture.
The tribe drafted a resolution in support of the bill. But they’d like to see some changes.
Right now, the grants are competitive. They hope Congress will consider making it formula-funded, so all schools have the opportunity to expand their language programs.
PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION, S.D. — Dodge tumbleweeds and stray dogs. Venture down a deeply rutted dirt road. Walk into the warmth of a home heated by a wood-burning stove. There’ll be a deer roast marinating on the kitchen counter.
It is here, in a snug home that sits on the edge of nearly 3 million acres of South Dakota prairie, that you’ll find the heart of a culture. It’s here, at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where Joe and Randi Boucher make dinner for their two young daughters. The smaller one squirms and is gently admonished: “Ayustan,” she is told — leave it alone.
It’s here where the Lakota language is spoken, taught and absorbed in day-to-day life.
That makes the Boucher home a rare find. According to the UCLA Language Materials Project, only 6,000 fluent speakers of the Lakota language remain in the world, and few of those are under the age of 65. Of the nearly 30,000 people who live on Pine Ridge, between 5 and 10 percent speak Lakota.
For the past four decades, the race to save the language has started and stuttered, taken on by well-meaning individuals and organizations whose efforts were often snuffed out by lack of funding, community support or organizational issues.
Some days, saving the language “seems like an insurmountable challenge,” said Bob Brave Heart, executive vice president of Red Cloud Indian School on the reservation.
The reason, some say, is a number of serious socioeconomic issues that overwhelm the Pine Ridge communities and make it difficult to successfully revive the dying language. The reservation has an 80 percent unemployment rate, and half the residents live below the federal poverty line, making it the second poorest county in the United States. Next to Haiti, it has the lowest life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere. Men live an average of 48 years; women, 52.
But those aren’t hurdles to learning the language, Randi Boucher said. Instead, they should stand as the very reason to perpetuate it.
“It is our language and our life way that will make change,” she said. “We have a loss of self-identity. We’re trying to exist without that. The language, that’s where the healing starts.”
‘Time to do it right’
Language signs at Red Cloud Indian School, which plans to publish the first comprehensive Lakota language K-12 curriculum by the end of this year. Kayla Gahagan
Brave Heart agreed.
“If you lose the language, you lose the culture,” he said. “When students are informed and part of their culture and their language, they have a better sense of self-worth.”
From Joe Boucher’s point of view, they face a much more serious hurdle.
“The biggest enemy we’re battling is apathy,” he said. “Our young people don’t care. They’d rather live in the now.”
They aren’t the only generation resisting the past. Cultural assimilation practices in the U.S. in the 19th century — sometimes in the form of verbal and physical punishment — forced many natives to speak English.
Elders here relive stories of having their mouths washed with soap or their tongues snapped with rubber bands by boarding school staff for speaking their native language.
“We were persecuted; it was dehumanizing,” said high school language teacher Philomine Lakota. “I was completely brainwashed into thinking English was the only way.”
And yet, Brave Heart said, now is the time to move forward.
“We’ve been teaching the language for 40 years, and we’ve been very ineffective,” he said. “It’s time to do it right.”
The school, alongside the American Indian Studies Research Institute at Indiana University, is about to publish the first comprehensive K-12 Lakota language curriculum. The private Catholic school embarked on the project six years ago, developing, testing and revising the curriculum, with the goal to publish by the end of this year.
Starting next year, students will be required to take Lakota language classes through elementary, middle and the first three years of high school. The final year is optional.
“This year’s first graders will be the first group to go through the entire curriculum,” said Melissa Strickland, who serves as the Lakota language project assistant at Red Cloud. She works with the six Lakota language teachers and trains staff across campus to use the language when conversing with the 575-member student body.
An immersion school
The Boucher family lives on the edge of the nearly 3 million acres that make up the reservation. Here, a shelter, constructed with a view of the scenic Badlands, that is used by Native American artists during the summer to create and sell their artwork. Kayla Gahagan
And is it working?
Last year, language test scores at Red Cloud jumped by 84 percent, and this year more than 70 percent of students reported using Lakota at home, in school and in their communities.
Teacher Philomine Lakota is encouraged, but is also aware that many students do not have family members speaking the language at home, and that many will leave the reservation and enter a world where it is not used.
“I realize I will not turn them into fluent speakers,” she said, but her desire is that they become proficient and eventually teach others. “There is hope.”
The $2.2 million project has not been without its hiccups, including personnel changes and disagreements among staff over which materials to use.
“Many programs for language revitalization are immersion,” Brave Heart said. “We’re not. We’re trying to do it within the confines of the educational system.”
Others have taken a road less traveled.
Peter Hill taught Lakota at Red Cloud before embarking on what he calls an exhausting journey to create the reservation’s first successful Lakota language immersion program, one that promises to fill two major gaps for families — language learning and quality, affordable child care.
“Child care out here is horrible. There’s no day care,” he said. “People just kind of get by with family members.”
After months of often unfruitful fundraising and research, the Lakota Language Immersion School opened a year ago with five babies and toddlers, including one of Hill’s daughters.
“At some point, you feel like it’s now or never,” Hill said. “There’s never going to be enough money or the ideal situation.”
The word has since spread, he said, and things are looking up. Today the program has 10 kids and three full-time staff members.
“We literally have kids on a wait list a couple years into the future, for kids not even born yet,” Hill said.
‘Love’ in two languages
The program was almost derailed last month when a severe South Dakota blizzard forced it out of its building. It was given another building in Oglala and recently moved in, but Hill knows the clock is ticking.
“The oldest kids are between 2 and 3 and starting to talk,” he said. “Eventually our feet will get held to the fire. If we say we’re an immersion program, we need to produce fluent kids.”
Finding qualified staff and enforcing 100 percent spoken Lakota remains the biggest hurdle.
“Even fluent speakers aren’t used to avoiding English,” he said. “People aren’t used to speaking Lakota to children. If they were, the language would be in much better shape. It’s a steep learning curve.”
If the language is to survive, the greater movement to save it will have to center on two things, Hill said — kids learning it as a first language and people like himself learning and teaching it as a second language.
Randi and Joe Boucher, who both studied the language in college and learned it from relatives, say they are encouraged by the new efforts.
They speak in Lakota half the time, gently pushing their kids to learn more than names of household objects. They want conversation:
Le aŋpetu kiŋ owayawa ekta takuku uŋspenič’ičhiya he? (Has the dog been fed?)
Wana wakȟaŋyeža kiŋ iyuŋgwičhuŋkhiyiŋ kta iyečheča. (We should put the kids to bed.)
And: thečhiȟila (I love you), a sentiment now mastered by both girls.
Randi is pursuing a master’s degree in language revitalization and hopes to someday open a school focused on a holistic approach to culture and language.
She is expecting another child next summer, and said that even with her aspirations to start a school, the heart of language learning should be in the home.
In their home, their daughters’ traditional native cradleboards — built, sewn and beaded by family — are out on display, a visible reminder of the couple’s insistence on raising their children with ties to their native blood.
“The day we have grandchildren and they can speak to us in Lakota, then we’ll know we did it right,” Randi said. “Then we can die happy.”
Perhaps one of the fastest, fun and easiest ways to promote Native language learning, comprehension and retention is through the use of songs and singing.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a Yakama language workshop at the annual Washington State Indian Education Association conference. The presenters were highlighting an after school Yakama language program recently started at one of their elementary schools. Presenting with the program director were several of the students who attended the program. The young students told us they wanted to teach us a song that they sing at the start of every after school session.
The song, sung to Barney’s dreaded by parents everywhere tune, was translated into Yakama and was surprisingly easy to pick up, perhaps because the tune is such a familiar one. As I sat there listening to other adults being taught the Yakama language through song, I got my pencil out and made my attempt to “Lakotaize” the song. Back at the hotel room, later that night, I taught my wakanyeja (children) the song in Lakota and all three had it memorized in a mere matter of a few tries.
Here is our youngest, Čaƞté Tadashi, singing our Lakotaized version of the Barney song (Lakota speakers the song is done with male gender endings).
lel u kunpi kin cante mawaste
How are you?
I am good
Because we are here my heart is good
See you again
Have fun and be creative coming up with your own Nativized version of the Barney song.
Le miye nahan le micinksi e yelo. Matt Remle and son Cante.
For the Lakota, the slashing of the stone exemplified disrespect in itself, but beyond that, there was something almost mocking about having four American presidents, all of whom had supported genocidal Indian policies, looking down at the Lakota people.
The heads of each of the four presidents measure 60 feet high and the monument took six and a half years to complete.
The presidents represented on the face of the mountain the Sioux called Six Grandfathers had some terrible Indian policies, here are some highlights:
Lincoln was responsible for hanging the Dakota 38, the largest mass hanging in U.S. history.
Thomas Jefferson supported a policy of assimilation, and failing that, extermination of the Cherokee and the Creek. He said all Natives should be driven beyond the Mississippi or, “take up the hatchet” and “never lay it down until they are all exterminated.”
Theodore Roosevelt, who, shortly after being elected governor of New York, announced, “This continent had to be won. We need not waste our time in dealing with any sentimentalist who believes that, on account of any abstract principle, it would have been right to leave this continent to the domain, the hunting ground of squalid savages. It had to be taken by the white race.”
Mount Rushmore was carved into the land that was promised in perpetuity through the Treaty of 1868. The Black Hills are central to the creation stories of the Lakota, where they have always lived and prayed. However, the 1860s were a time when promises were made, but soon broken. In 1877, gold was found in the Black Hills and the land was confiscated by the U.S. government. To this day, the Lakota have refused payment for the land of their origins.
One well-intentioned, if unpopular, result was that in 1939, Henry Standing Bear, Lakota graduate of Carlisle Indian School, wrote a letter requesting Connecticut sculptor Korczak Ziolowski come to South Dakota and carve the likeness of Standing Bear’s ancestor, Crazy Horse, into another mountain. Standing Bear wrote, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too.” The Crazy Horse Memorial, which is substantially bigger than Mount Rushmore, is a result of their relationship.
While the majority of local Native Americans agree that Mount Rushmore could not have been a more offensive undertaking, in 2003, things began to change with the arrival of the monument’s new superintendent, Gerard Baker, Mandan-Hidatsa. From the beginning, Baker set about turning over what the Rapid City Journal called “misconceptions about travel and tourism on the reservations,” addressing the questions of tourists, such as, “Do Indians still live in tipis?”
Baker, described as having long braids and standing close to 6’6”, hired two members of Pine Ridge’s Akicita (Warrior) Society and set up a Native American village. He recommended that his employees read Black Elk Speaks, and that they bone up on the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868. Baker took visitors to Pine Ridge’s Red Shirt Table and Wounded Knee. According to historian Donovin Sprague, Lakota, Baker truly rang in a new era.
“I think Gerard Baker did wonders up there, he got a little village going, and he faced some heat on that. I knew him from the Battle of the Little Big Horn site, and he was part of the big change up there. It had been Custer’s battlefield, and he had it renamed to reflect both cultures,” Sprague said. “Then there was, of course, the Two Cents Column of racist comments in the newspaper. He’s an outstanding person who worked for the National Parks Service since he was a young man.”
When Sprague was asked his opinion of Mount Rushmore, he sighed. “Putting the presidents faces on treaty land, I have always known all my life these things are here and not going away, so I was raised to think about it educationally. What can we do to use it to bring people together?”
Having worked with the former education director at Rushmore, Sprague said, “They [the staff at Rushmore under Baker] were very into integrated culture. We had a graduate studies credit program through Black Hills State University, where I was an instructor. They had staff for the Lakota side of history and culture, and Gerard was there to speak. There was a balancing. We had a really good working relationship during Gerard’s era.”
Baker is reportedly now working in Pine Ridge to establish a new park in the Badlands. Quoted in Esquire Magazine, Baker said, “When I got offered the job [at Rushmore], I called the elders up and asked their advice. I was expecting to hear, ‘Don’t work there. You’ll be a turncoat!’ But instead what I heard was just the opposite, ‘What a place to begin the healing process!’”
Since the monument has been closed due to the government shutdown, there is no information about whether or not the programs instituted under Baker have continued.