at the Lakota Nest Immersion School dress up and learn the
parts of the body. Here they learn the word logleska, esophagus.(Lakota
Nest Immersion School)
"There is more to an immersion school than simply
bringing in elders and having them teach the chidren," said Sunshine
Carlow, education manager of Lak?ól'iyapi Wahó?pifor,
the Lakota Nest Immersion School on the Standing Rock Reservation
in South Dakota.
The challenges of opening, running and maintaining the small
immersion school have been overwhelming, with costs limiting the
amount of children the school can admit. "We have 10 kids in the
nest and two cohorts," Carlow said. "The first cohort is in kindergarten
right now, and this is their third year. We brought in the second
cohort and we were going to do a third, but we didn't have the funding.
We are operating on tuition, and right now we don't have the funds
to hire another teacher." The Nest is currently using Go
Fund Me to try to assure the school will continue.
When the conversation about an immersion school began in 2011,
fluent community members said they had learned Lakota by living
with their grandparents. "But there is a big difference between
having grandparents speaking to one or two children, and having
an elder in the class with ten 3, 4, and 5 year olds. A big difference,"
Carlow laughed. "Out of respect, we are not going to put an elder
in with ten kids."
Locke, Gabe Black Moon, and Courtney Yellow Fat join students
to teach the Lakota language. (Lakota Language Consortium)
Finding speakers to teach was one of the greatest challenges,
and in a door-to-door survey, only about 30 speakers were qualified.
Most of them had been active in the Lakota Summer Institute.
The Lakota Summer Institute,
or LSI, is an annual three-week language boot camp. Now entering
its ninth year, the institute has taught Lakota to between 300 and
400 people. "We get almost all of the teachers from Pine Ridge,
Cheyenne River, Standing Rock, Rosebud, and from other reservations
and districts like Sioux Falls and Rapid City and Pierre, as well
as Bismarck, Denver, Minneapolis, and from all over the countryand
Nicole Walker, education coordinator for the Standing Rock Sioux
Tribe, said the Lakota Nest and the Lakota Summer Institute share
a deep connection. "The last time the language was spoken by the
majority was 40, 50, 60 years ago. At that point, the language was
very much alive and people came up with new words everyday for the
modern things we have now."
Today, even fluent speakers don't spend enough time together
for new words to evolve, so coming up with new words is one aspect
of LSI. "Sometimes it's the really simple things that we take for
granted, like foods or toys. How do we talk about playing with legos?
So this is a time speakers can get together and hash it out," Walker
The Neologism class, taught by Ben Black Bear, Sicangu, a first-language
Lakota speaker, and the founder of the Lakota Studies program at
Sinté Gleka University, is where lifelong Lakota speakers
work together to develop new words. "All day we come up with new
words, concepts, things that exist that we need words for," Black
and Ben Black Bear participate in skits as a way to teach
the Lakota language. (Lakota Language Consortium)
The class weighs new word ideas, and when they decide on one,
they record it and pass it on to the community and schools. "If
people accept it and start using it, we would put it in the dictionary,
but only if it gains acceptance among the community."
Many of these new words are brought back to the Nest, where
they are incorporated with the language the students and teachers
Black Bear, who also teaches at the Saint Francis School in
Rosebud, said, "The Institute draws speakers of every level, from
non-speakers just learning to people who are teaching the language
but are not yet speakers. We usually get a lot of students who understand
the language but don't speak it. To teach the lower levels, K-3,
you don't have to be a good speaker, you can learn right along at
that level. Right now, I am teaching third and fourth grade. We
do follow the leader, stand up, walk forward, turn right, things
like that. Anybody can learn if they have the interest and teach
it while they are learning it, as long as they are trained teachers."
Finding trained teachers is a problem that is addressed at LSI.
Black Bear said, "We want to have teachers who can develop lessons,
lesson plans and materials, so those are some of the courses they
are learning at the summer institute."
LSI teaches all levels, from Europeans to fluent Native speakers
who come to learn the grammar, the writing system, sentence structure,
phrases and common expressions, the sound system, spelling, and
the writing system.
"Even Native speakers whose first language is Lakota need to
learn that stuff, just as people who grow up with English learn
English in school; you learn to read or write. If we want to keep
the language alive we have to teach fluent speakers the same thing,"
Black Bear said.
in the Lakota Nest Immersion School were introduced to President
Barack and Michelle Obama. (Lakota Nest Immersion School)
Wilhelm Meya, executive director of the Lakota
Language Consortium, a partner of LSI and generator of the Lakota
Dictionary and the Lakota Berenstain
Bears program, said the summer institute began as a teacher
training event and morphed into the leading place to learn Lakota.
"We offer intensive Lakota courses that aren't offered anywhere
else. It's an immersive atmosphere where you can take up to 6 hours
a day over three weeks. It can really boost your fluency," he said.
According to Black Bear, the Lakota language is healthier than
it was five years ago. "It's growing leaps and bounds," he said.
The Lakota Language Consortium has a language learning site and
Facebook page where people can practice their language and receive
corrections in their coursework. "I check my email everyday, and
every day I am getting 20, 30, 50 people wanting to join the group.
Every two or three days my email is full, so there is quite a bit
of interest right nowand it is not just Lakota, it is growing
While it is growing among adults, there is still a shortage
of children who are growing up speaking Lakota. Carlow said it's
been 50 years since the elders heard the children speak Lakota.
"We lose speakers every month and sometimes every week. We need
to learn from then; when they go, what do we have? We have some
children speakers now, but that's 10 children out of 3,500 people."
Hill, Sandra and Ben Black Bear, John Vanderveer, Duta Flying
Earth, Kevin Locke, Rich Dube, and TC Hill, teachers, staff
and others, perform in a variety of comedy skits as a way
of teaching the language. (Lakota Language Consortium)
The Lakota Language Consortium co-sponsor LSI with the Standing
Rock Sioux Tribe and Sitting Bull College, the host institution.
Credits are received through college and students can receive a
certificate or put credits towards a degree. "Language teachers
have to be recertified. Part of that requirement is to have 6 credit
hours of professional development every three to five years. The
Standing Rock Tribe, which is one of the leading tribes working
on language revitalization, has invested a lot of time, energy and
money to ensure their students and tribal members have the most
exposure and access to resources," Meya said. "It is modeled on
the best summer institutes, both Native and other summer programs,
so we have a strong pedagogical foundation."
"It is such an inspiring three weeks, and after you survive
that, it creates a very strong team," Meya said. "It's kind of the
nexus of the movement, where people who have come for years have
passed that activism on to the next group. It's an important aspect
of bringing the language back, it inspires and empowers people and
it keeps the teachers going until they come back the next year."