Inside The Lakota Language Academy

Jun 10, 2019

Credit The Lakota Language Consortium

An intensive language course is helping people learn Lakota. The Lakota Language Academy is one of many revitalization efforts in the Midwest. Adult students, including K-12 educators, are meeting on the Pine Ridge Reservation to help keep the language alive.


Several adult students practice speaking sentences in Lakota. They’re learning at the Oglala Lakota College in Kyle. It’s a summer course offered by the revitalization group, the Lakota Language Consortium. There are five classes that focus on grammar, basic language and teaching tactics for local educators.

Twenty nine year old Alex Fire Thunder is part of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, where Lakota is a traditional language. He’s teaching a new type of immersive course.

“Communicative Lakota Language is using a methodology that actually gets our students speaking and communicating with each other. So we’re not just learning and talking about the language. We’re actually utilizing the language and showing them using props and images and doing some role playing and skits and things like that.”  

There are nearly 70 students. Fire Thunder says grammar classes are great for learning the inner workings of the language, but these classes take a more conversational approach.

“Any language is going to be easier to learn through an immersive environment. So The more you say things, the more you hear things, the more you’re going to remember and it’s going to stick with you.”

Lakota uses different sound than English, so it can be a hard language to learn.. Fire Thunder grew up learning some Lakota words from his mother, but didn’t get the opportunity to practice communicating in the language.

“I grew up singing Lakota but I didn’t necessarily know everything I was singing about. So that was one of my inspirations as I got older. I wanted to know what I was singing about in the different ceremonies, different pow wows and celebrations. And so I began actively learning about six years ago.”  

Fire Thunder says even though he knows enough of the language to teach it, he’s not fluent yet but he’s getting there.

Wamblee Looking Horse has roots in the Oglala Lakota Sioux and Pomo tribes. She also grew up singing Lakota and speaking basic words. She’s been learning conversational Lakota for 15 years, and is a student in the Summer Institute to improve her teaching skills.

“I was always told if you ever want to become a fluent speaker, you would have to basically live with two elderly's for a whole couple years in order to get the full understanding of the language.”

Looking Horse is one of nearly 20 educators translating short, children's stories into Lakota. They’re learning techniques to help teach the language in their own classrooms.

Looking Horse is a Lakota Language mentor with the youth program, Rural American Initiatives in Rapid City. She teaches the language to Native and non-Native students at a public elementary school.

Her lessons take place during the school day in nearly 20 minute blocks dedicated to STEAM learning—that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math.

“Just enough to keep their attention. They love it and the teachers are fully supportive on everything and I just can’t wait to start the next year.”

There aren’t too many people left who speak Lakota—Some estimates report fewer than five percent of people on the Pine Ridge Reservation are fluent and most are elderly. Looking Horse says this class is a new opportunity.

“I’m just a beginning learner, but this class here has been able to help me better structure my lesson plans, better explain my lesson plans. Better explain even the sounds, the symbols, the wedges in the language.”

Looking Horse says it’s important to encourage kids to keep learning.

 

“Those kids, the Native kids especially, they’re like ‘I know that word. I know that one’. That’s the hardest thing to keep in kids, of being proud of who they are. Even though they can’t speak it fluently, it takes alot for a person to say ‘I know how to say that, I know what that means’. So I always, always praise the kids when it gets to that point.”

The grammar classes focus on how to make specific noises and pronunciations.

Lora Catches teaches grammar. The 35 year old is part of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe. She’s been speaking the language for eight years. Catches works with Thunder Valley CDC’s Lakota Immersion Program on the Pine Ridge Reservation. That's a program that focuses on language revitalization by teaching kids.

“I’m a teacher trainer so I train the teachers how to teach in Lakota. How to teach reading and different subjects.”

Students first enter a daycare program where they only speak Lakota. They graduate to elementary school where the entire curriculum is also taught in the language.

Catches says training these teachers involves showing them how to interact with students.

“It’s just breaking it down. Like how we’re learning here, you have to start from the very beginning with the alphabet and the sounds of the letters in Lakota and understanding that the letters are different than the English letters.”

The grammar course at the Summer Institute covers things like conversational Lakota to help adults speak quickly. Catches says she receives more questions on nuances in the language when she’s teaching adults. She says it’s important to offer opportunities like this to them.

“Just being able able to learn our own language, I can see it in the adult learners. It’s really exciting and inspiring. And I hope that they continue their self study after these couple weeks and can become instructors and teachers themselves. I see that happening.”

Catches says this Lakota Language Academy is just one important pieces of keeping the language alive.