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Program pays full-time wage for learning Lakota language

Rosebud Economic Development Corporation

The Lakota language is at the tipping point of being lost to history. Many tribes across the United States are in the same situation and are making their own preservation efforts.

One such effort is based out of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Wizipan Little Elk is a member of the tribe and chief executive officer of Rosebud Economic Development Corporation or REDCO. REDCO is an ecosystem of organizations that promote socioeconomic development.

They established a Lakota language revitalization program, Lakolya Waoniya, which loosely translates to “Breathing in the breath of life as I speak Lakota.”

“I think that's the beautiful thing about Lakota is, it's such a fluid language that people can kind of bring their own unique translations to things,” said Little Elk.

"And also, the other thing about Lakota is, it has so much philosophy embedded within it. And so, if I were to provide my translation, what it means to me, it would be something along the lines of, I'm speaking the Lakota language as I live, and I live because I'm speaking the Lakota language. It's all of that together.”

The program is in its early stages, but the goal is to hire seven full time employees who are willing to learn Lakota. They will have a full-time salary above minimum wage, benefits such as health insurance, and standard time off.

“This is to be treated as a real job,” said Little Elk. “It is a real job. Your job is to learn the language. This is funded through a philanthropic gift, and so we're able to do this for three years, to pilot it, and to explore this. We've never done it here. So, does it work? Is it a model for the future? Should we be doing this on a broader scale? Can it be expanded? Being able to go out and ask those questions.”

Little Elk said bold and new ideas are what is needed for Lakota people to revitalize their language.

“When we look at the language statistics, it gets really, really scary,” he said. “Globally, we're probably looking at around 2,000 Lakota speakers amongst all Lakota people, all tribes. Here in Rosebud, we probably have around 456 conversationally fluent speakers, the majority who are over age 60, and probably around three speakers under the age of 30, and really zero conversationally fluent speakers under the age of 18.”

Lakolya Waoniya is part of REDCO’s 7th Generation Plan, which is a 175-year plan of prosperity for their people and the region based on socioeconomic needs. Under this plan, the hope is that the Lakota language can be spoken every day as a normal part of life.

“I hope that this is just a part of a much larger language revitalization movement,” said Little Elk. "There's some great work going on. We're just a part of the larger ecosystem, right? There's great work happening in other places. And so, I want there to be a healthy, and a full, and a vibrant language revitalization movement, where we're all doing things according to what makes sense for us, and learning from each other, and sharing information and knowledge. I hope that that happens, and I hope that in a generation from now or sooner, you and I could have this conversation all in Lakota, and that it just becomes an everyday part of our lives.”

Assimilation and generational trauma especially at the hands of boarding schools such as Carlisle Indian School meant indigenous culture, customs, languages and lives were lost during that dark time in history.

“It's really important that we have a boarding school discussion, and that we continue to have that boarding school discussion,” Little Elk said, “but we can't simply get stuck on the past and live in a state of grief. It's really important that we brought those kids home from Carlisle. That was necessary. But if we stop there, then we're not going on a full healing journey. The next part of that is saying, OK, our language and culture, an attempt was made to rub it out. That didn't work. But now, we're going to bring it back, and breathe life back into it. And that's what the next part of that work is, and that's what programs like this are trying to do.”

The Lakolya Waoniya program is looking for a project manager to guide this vision as well as staff to execute the curriculum.

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