Lakota Language Program Looks To Keep Customs Alive

Jun 20, 2016

Denny Gayton is an instructor at Sitting Bull College, and teaches a variety of Lakota courses.
Credit Lakota Language Consortium

The Lakota Summer Institute is a three week long program that hopes to build lifelong learners of the Lakota language. Held at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota, officials from the institute say they want to give people a reason to learn a language that so few speak. 

The Institute offers free Lakota language courses but also includes classes like Northern Plains sign language, Lakota Flute teaching or Lakota drama. Although it’s popular among teachers looking to improve their Lakota knowledge, it’s for anyone interested in learning the customs of Lakota.

The Lakota Summer Institute draws people from eight reservations and ten states, including South Dakota.

Denny Gayton is a Lakota instructor and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; he says the Institute is one of only two in the country. Gayton says its goal is to create lifelong Lakota speakers.

“That is the overall goal, where Lakota replaces English, once that happens, and during that portion, there’s going to be other expressions which will crop up and they’re going to end up being built upon the existing ones, patterned after the existing idiomatic expressions which all people who are learning Lakota they can learn during their course of their time in class at LSI,” says Gayton.

Gayton says unlike German or another widely spoken language, there’s no place a Lakota learner can go to be totally immersed in the language.

“It seems like the students are just really grateful that there’s a place like this because there are so few speakers left, if you and I, if we wanted to learn German, you and I could study together and we could get proficient, at least to what we think is proficient, but then we’d go to Germany, and we’d be immersed in it,” says Gayton.

Gayton says a beginners Lakota class at the Institute is made up almost entirely of middle school aged children. He says the image of what a Lakota Speaker looks like, is shifting, from someone who is old to someone who is young.

The Lakota Summer Institute continues until June 24. To find more informationn about the Lakota Summer Institute, click here.