Piine Ridge, SD
At the Red Cloud School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Lakota is still the second language. But it's first in the hearts of educators and students who are bringing back the fast-disappearing language in a program that leads the nation.
These days Lakota is everywhere at the Red Cloud School — in the halls, on the walls and on the lips of students. It's in their hearts, too.
The Lakota language permeates this century-old Catholic school for Native American children on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which runs the nation's first comprehensive K-12 Lakota language curriculum.
Red Cloud executive and language project director Robert Brave Heart says learning Lakota can change lives.
"We believe it's important because for our students to be successful," Brave Heart said. "They need to have a positive sense of identity, a positive sense of who they are, where they come from, their history, their culture."
Brave heart helped start the project six years ago, working with Red Cloud staffers and language experts from the University of Indiana. The project has expanded ongoing Lakota language instruction into an everyday learning experience.
Waniya Locke teaches Lakota to students from kindergarten through fourth grade. Little if any English is spoken in the earlier classes.
"There is no English in the kindergarten classroom whatsoever," Locke says. "I really don't have lesson plans with them. I just play with them and I interact with them in the language and they can pick it up like that."
Even in her second-grade class, Locke relies mostly on Lakota words, flash-card art, objects and an occasional modern-day fist bump. Teaching techniques help students avoid slipping back into English.
"That's why I always give them the answer first, and then I'll ask the question," she says. "That way they're not having English influence their language. It's trying to keep the Lakota as pure as possible."
The Lakota Language Project helps students return to their cultural roots. It might also help save the language itself.
Once considered by non-Indian officials to be an impediment to Lakota students, the language is now being revived and revered. With only a few thousand fluent speakers left, the effort comes none too soon.
"We're doing something to try to help preserve, trying to keep the language alive by teaching it in the school," Brave Heart said.
That effort is strengthened through coordination between Lakota language teachers and other educators at the school who blend teaching plans.
"So, what are kindergarteners learning in their kindergarten classroom? Let's try to replicate that in our kindergarten language classroom," Melissa Strickland, coordinator of the Lakota Language Project, said.
The simple addition of Lakota signs throughout the school is another part of language immersion.
"We've made a big push to make sure that students aren't just seeing and hearing a language in their language classes, but that they are also seeing it and hearing it outside of those classes," Strickland says.
Bianca Spotted Thunder started Lakota language classes when she was a freshman and took it through her graduation last spring. Now she is an office assistant in the program who coordinated the sign effort.
"I have the best job ever," Spotted Thunder said. "I work with the language every day. I make signs, posters, I'm in the classrooms, and it really is a lot of fun."
But she also knows how important it is. And she wants to keep getting better at her native language.
"I've learned actually just working here in this job," she says. "But I have a lot to learn. I'm nowhere near fluent."
She's getting there, day after day, word after word.
"A?pétu wašté yuhá," she said.
In Lakota, that means have a good day. And for those rich with their own language, most days are.
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