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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Racing To Save A Language


The vesper landscape on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. Barren Butte stands alone from the Barren Hill range. Photo by Dakota for The First Scout.

Lakota Language Nest, An Immersion School
Reviving A Language On The Knife’s Edge Of Extinction
By Dakota for the North Dakota Humanities Council
It is the heart of winter on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. Gleaming white snow blankets the landscape, the Missouri River has turned to ice and the crisp cold air somehow makes every sound sharper–the peal of a bell seems to carry an impossible distance from town–but the sounds of children playing, laughing and singing warms everything.

The children are in pre-school, ages three to four. Their high-pitched play echoes down the hall when their door opens. The pitch of little voices sounds like what one would hear in any other early child care service across the state, but listen closer and it becomes obvious that this isn’t like any other day care service. The children speak a mix of English and Lakota amongst themselves, but the teachers strictly speak only Lakota in the classroom.


This preschool is called Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi, the Lakota Language Nest. It is an immersion school still in its first year of practice and based on the language nest model which was designed by the Maori people in New Zeeland. The language nest was established to raise language loss awareness on the reservation and to raise up a new generation of first-language Lakota speakers.

The language nest is one part of the Lakota Language Education Action Program (LLEAP) designed for students to go to college and pursue language studies. Students who are in the program are given financial aid to learn Lakota and gain proficiency in the language with the caveat that LLEAP participants must teach the language. Many of the nest’s learners have parents participating in LLEAP at Sitting Bull College.

Lakota language teacher, Tipiziwin Young engages a little boy, answering him only in Lakota.

Tipiziwin Young, a second-language teacher in the Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi program, estimates that there are about 200 fluent Lakota speakers left on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. “A few years back, I was facetious with Jan Ullrich about who I am and where I’m from when he said to me, ‘You’re language will die.’ He didn’t say it to be mean. He said it to be real. I was moved to silence. I was provoked. The loss of my language motivated me to learn it.” Young is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, born and raised on the reservation, and a mother to three children. “I teach here, then go home and stay in Lakota for my children to learn.”

A little boy with a mop of brown hair approaches me. In a quiet unassuming voice he introduces himself to me. Thinking to obey the rule of the classroom, I go down on one knee and respond, “Hau. Dakota émaĥčiyapi lo.” I gesture to him, an open palm when I greet him, then gesture to my heart. I place my right fist above my left fist over my heart, then gesture with my right hand–index finger–to my mouth when I say my name. I’ve seen few others use the Plains Indian sign and gesture language and the signs I made were for “my” or “mine” and for “name.” I don’t know that his little one has seen the old sign and gesture but he nods his head and smiles.

Sacheen Whitetail-Cross prepares a hands-on activity involving colors and rice for the Nest. 

Sacheen Whitetail-Cross, Project Director of LLEAP and the Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi at Sitting Bull College, is preparing an activity with rice for the children. For Whitetail-Cross the greatest challenge with the language nest has been to “stay” in Lakota, “I spent a week in Washington DC, speaking nothing but English. When I came back to the classroom, during an activity, I asked a couple of the children, ‘What are you doing?’ in English. They were as shocked as I was.”

One observation that Whitetail-Cross shared about the children of the language nest is that they are showing ownership of Lakota. At a recent program, they heard a Lakota speaker, and many of them told Whitetail-Cross, “That’s my language.”

Tom Red Bird speaks only Lakota with a little boy as they work on a puzzle together.

Tom Red Bird, the first-language teacher on staff at the Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi, approaches a group of little boys near the window. One mischievous boy stands on a heater behind the short bookcase which was put next to the window. “Héčé šni! [Don’t do that!]” Red Bird says and gestures to the boy to get down. The boy casually climbs down as though he were going to get down anyway and rejoins the other boys.

Perhaps an indication of how comfortable the children are is use of Lakota is in their own little conversations. Two of the children, a boy and a girl are playing with Legos. They began to argue over a few choice bricks in their construction. The boy wants a brick that the girl is already using. As he reaches for it he says in English, “That’s mine!” She retorts in Lakota, “Šni! Šni! Héčé šni! No, don’t do that!” and keeps her brick.

 Two children sort out who gets to play with what in a discussion which involved a mix of English and Lakota. 

A father steps into the classroom. Chase Iron Eyes is his name. His daughter Azilya is among the nest participants. “I heard of this program through community members,” says Iron Eyes, “My wife and I were immediately drawn to it. We wanted her to have this opportunity.” Iron Eyes commutes each week day from Mandan, ND. “She’s not a morning baby. She fights every morning.” He believes the effort is worth the struggle.

Iron Eyes relates to me that Azilya experienced culture shock for the first two weeks then she started to like it and began to speak Lakota at home. Azilya’s older siblings have begun asking their sister and father how to say things in Lakota, and she corrects her father’s Lakota grammar.

Chase Iron Eyes, Esq., founding contributing writer of The Last Real Indians has his mind going a hundred different directions, but his actions always serve the interests of the American Indian people. Profile photo of Chase Iron Eyes from The Last Real Indians.

Iron Eyes doesn’t believe that language revitalization today equals a renaissance. “Its something that’s been building up now since the 1960s and ‘70s,” he points out, “native activists were and are proponents of language practice. It’s not a renaissance because you live it.” Iron Eyes is active with the community and engaged as a parent in the Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi program.

The children in the Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi are getting to be good speakers. “Their American accent is going away,” says Red Bird. They hold hands and pray before lunch. Little hands clasped in little hands. When the prayer of thanksgiving, the Wota Wačéki, is finished the children say together in unison, “Mitakuyé Oyasiŋ,” the traditional way the Lakota conclude prayers meaning “All My Relatives.” During lunch one of the little boys stops eating and spontaneously breaks into song, singing in the Lakota language.

Tom Red Bird takes a moment to finish a project while the children are engaged in an activity.

After the parents have picked up their children, Red Bird deeply breathes what sounds like a sigh of satisfaction. The only relief he shares is that the language is spoken again daily. “I like it,” Red Bird says in English, “I get to speak my language all day. It feels good.” Red Bird is originally from the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation, and had taught Lakota at United Tribes Technical College for several years. “Our Lakota people get lonesome to be home or go home, and language is part of that. That’s where our heart is. I go home to get reenergized.”

Red Bird has hopes for the children, the tĥakŏža, as he refers to them. “If this keeps going, maybe in ten years we’ll have a new group of Lakota speakers who speak the language correctly.” Red Bird is a great-grandfather and he speaks only Lakota to his great-grandson. His optimism for what can only be called a language revival pours out of him, “We have a culture and tradition, our spirituality, a land base, and our relationship with all of those is best expressed with words found only in our language. It is a sacred language.”

Sacheen Whitetail-Cross loves her job, but not nearly as she has come to love the children she teaches at the Nest. She hugs a learner and offers words of encouragement to him. 

Whitetail-Cross’ hopes for language revival echoes Red Bird’s, but her optimism is laced with concerns for the program, “Funding is an issue.” The Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi program received funding from an Administration of Native Americans grant for three years. The first year of programming consisted of developing preschool curriculum, training for language educators, and classroom startup. The Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi is in its second year of funding, its first year of operation.

The North Dakota Humanities Council recently awarded a $10,000 grant to the Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi program to assist the program with publication of language materials, but its not enough. Both Whitetail-Cross and Red Bird have expressed the dire need for age-appropriate language materials. There isn’t much published.

 Artist and author S.D. Nelson is also an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Whitetail-Cross is working with Nelson and the State Historical Society of South Dakota to acquire permissions to print Nelson's works in the Lakota language. Buy your copy from the 

Once a week, Red Bird will take a children’s book, translate the text, and then read the story to the children. Having extra copies of Red Bird’s translations for parents to take home and read with their children would help to reinforce that day’s language lesson. “We desperately need more language materials,” Red Bird said.

Jan Ullrich, linguistic director of the Lakota Language Consortium, shares Red Bird’s concern for speaking the Lakota language correctly. Ullrich has had a hand in the development of a standard Lakota orthography for the New Lakota Dictionary. We converse on Skype getting to know a little of one another before business. Ullrich is from the Czech Republic. As a little boy he admired the survival story of the American Indian. In 1992, he travelled to the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation and made friends with the Fire Thunder and Looking Horse families and came to learn Lakota.

Jan Ullrich may come from the Czech Republic but his heart is Lakota. Visit his work online at the Lakota Language Consortium.

Ullrich sends me the letters t, o, k and a. He then asks me to pronounce what he’s spelled. I reply TOH-kah which can mean “enemy,” then follow up with toh-KAH which can mean “first.” Ullrich then sends me the texts Tĥoka and Tĥoká. The accent marks take a moment to get used to, but the new standard orthography he employs has me pronouncing Lakota correctly when I read it.

Ullrich’s standard orthography isn’t embraced by all Lakota speakers, nor is it the first effort at standard orthgraphy he admits. Sometime back, a Lakota man named Curly from the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation developed a thirty-six character alphabet. The main drawback with this alphabet for modern Lakota speakers is that it involves learning and remembering entirely new symbols. The new standard orthography makes use of the modern keyboard and letters with sounds Lakota students learned with English, the only addition are marks for accent, aspirants, glottal sounds and glottal stops.

Jan Ullrich is the editor of the New Lakota Dictionary, but being the editor means little to Ullrich who credits several Lakota people who've contributed to this work. Support the Lakota Language Consortium and buy a copy of this dictionary or any other of their published Lakota language materials online at the Lakota Language Consortium Bookstore.

“Missionaries did a good job of starting the process of recording the language,” explains Ullrich, “But they ‘invented’ new words in the interest of literal word for word translation, rather than translation of concept for concept.” Thousands of entries in the Buechel and Riggs dictionaries should be carefully and critically examined according to Ullrich. These dictionaries should also be praised for bringing the Lakota and Dakota languages to the general public’s attention.

Ullrich recently joined the Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi via Skype to encourage the young learners and to offer courage to the language teachers. Like Red Bird, Ullrich believes that the key to language revitalizing is learning consistently and accurately.

Tipiziwin Young engages the children in an activity. The children enthusiastically respond with requests for pictures of various faces and feelings. 

Young gathers the children together in a circle on a soft blue carpet. A couple of the children take their time in getting to the circle. Young raises her voice a little, “Inaĥni!” she says, hurry. I know the word well from my own childhood and it becomes obvious that these young ones do too. “Iyotake, iyotake,” Young commands with the strong confidence that mother’s everywhere instinctively possess. Sit down, sit down, and they do so without argument.

She takes out a pen and paper and quickly draws a series of faces with a variety of expressions. The children respond somewhat in unison, “Iyokipiya!” “Wačiŋko!” Happy! Sad! The children tell her in Lakota what faces to draw next and she obliges. When they finish this exercise, they even take time to sing happy birthday to two of the boys, “Aŋpétu tuŋpi,” Young begins and the tĥakŏža sing following her cues. It is to the popular tune “Good morning to all” which was popularly appropriated to the Happy Birthday song, and it’s a close translation in Lakota, They day you were born.

Little voices singing in Lakota continue to echo in my mind when I leave the Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi, the Lakota Language Nest. It was spoken everyday in the days of warriors and legend. It was spoken everyday when the reservations were established.

The Bismarck Indian Boarding School for girls, 1933. 

Somehow along the way between then and now the language began to die through a variety of reasons. Some speakers were scarred from their experiences in learning English during the boarding school days. Some left the reservation and never returned, their children and grandchildren grew up speaking only English. Schools on the reservation teach only in English. Lakota became a language for church or special occasion.

These tĥakŏža speak the language in fun, in play, in prayer, and even in arguments. They can express themselves and articulate their feelings accurately through the knowledge of two languages. Perhaps English has too many words. There is a word for everything, a noun. It’s a language of things. Lakota is a language of description and relation, and that’s just what we need these days. 

Support the Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi, the Lakota Language Nest. Contact Sacheen Whitetail-Cross at Sitting Bull College at (701) 854-8034 or sacheenw@sbci.edu about what you can do to save the language.

Support the Lakota Language Consortium. Visit them online at www.lakhota.org

Or make a donation to the North Dakota Humanities Council. The NDHC will make sure that the Lakota Language Nest receives your support. Contact the NDHC at (701) 255-3360, or council@ndhumanities.org.