The education of Native American children has evolved since Betty Robertson attended a Pine Ridge boarding school as a child.
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.
American Horse is a tribal school serving students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade in Allen on the southeast part of the Pine Ridge Reservation. It’s 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 and traditions.
"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 those words."
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.
© 2017 KELOLAND TV. All Rights Reserved.