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Pine Ridge Immersions Program Creates Lakota Speakers

Chynna Lockett

Lakota is an original Native American language that elders on some South Dakota reservations speak today. There are efforts in a number of places around the country to preserve the language.

It’s a vocabulary lesson for a group of young students. 

They’re part of the Lakota Immersion Childcare program on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Here, all the learning is done in Lakota.

Peter Hill is the Language Coordinator. He says there are hundreds of native populations in the Americas who have lost their language. This program was developed in 2012 to create new generations of fluent Lakota speakers.

“So much of the culture, the knowledge, the way of life of Lakota people is bound up in and expressed by the language. Having to put it in English and putting it into an English Language context—it really does lose a lot of its meaning, a lot of its richness and a lot of its import.”

Hill says their program started with just five kids. Now the group has expanded and is part of Thunder Valley CDC. That’s a development cooperation that works to create new opportunities for native people.

The daycare accepts children between 18 months and five years old. They have the staff to support 20 kids at a time and a full waiting list. Hill says they don’t require a strict vetting process for families, but want parents who commit to keeping their child in the program.

“Even kids who start very, very good emergence programs later in life, the language that they learned in the emergence program is never their home language. It’s never their default language. We can’t necessarily bring the language into their home. We want to create an environment that’s as rich in Lakota language as we can during the hours that we have them here 5 days a week.”

When the kids are old enough to start school, they continue their education in a language immersion classroom at Red Cloud School.

Credit Chynna Lockett

“The thing about emersion education is it’s not just teaching the language. Teaching the language is what we do here at that daycare. Once they get up to kindergarten, its teaching a fully fleshed out curriculum in the language. So our kindergartners and our first graders are doing everything that their mainstream peers are doing entirely in Lakota.”

In the immersion classroom at Red Cloud School all the posters and student art are written in Lakota.

Students learn their colors and shapes with vocabulary words and then draw them in crayon. When I ask them to translate the words ‘yellow square’ into English, they are not impressed.

“You don’t know Lakota? Really? Really?”

So far, Hill says they have moved two groups of daycare kids into kindergarten and then first grade. Both grades share a classroom.

Creating a curriculum entirely in Lakota has been a challenge for staff.  Everything from math and science to art has to be thought in the language.

“We have to have a vocabulary that encompasses for example hundreds of math terms that had never before been coined in the language. We need to have words to say those things. Those words need to be based in authentic, idiomatic Lakota.”

Hill says when program started there weren’t many teaching materials available in the language. He says translation is a central focus. 

“Creating children’s books, translating existing children’s books, publishing our own. Creating videos, crating apps for smartphones and tablets.”

He says they try to keep the materials free and widely available so more people can learn.

“Being able to use the internet as a platform has enabled us to make Lakota language learning content available to anyone in the world that’s interested.”

The staff is now developing a second-grade course and preparing for the next generation of daycare students.