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Institute aims to create a new generation of Lakota speakers

June 23, 2018

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — Dawn Frank breaks from the interview to answer a family text message. Her daughters attend Stanford University. When they text back home to their mom and aunts on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, it’s often in Lakota.

“We’re just sharing logistics on a family event,” said Frank, vice president for instruction at Oglala Lakota College in Kyle. “Here,” she points to the final expression, laughing, “They’re just asking if there’ll be coffee.”

Lakota, once suppressed by the boarding school system, is on the rise in the western part of South Dakota, the Rapid City Journal reported. For the first time, the Lakota Language Consortium hosted a two-week Lakota Summer Institute on Pine Ridge, one of the parcels of land allotted to the western bands of the Sioux in southwestern South Dakota.

The two-week summer institute in Kyle came from Frank’s determination to get professional development for her faculty.

“It’s about speaking,” she said, over a lunch of beef stew, blueberry soup, fry bread and fruit punch, as students and teachers intermingled during the lunch hour in the foray of the Lakota Language Immersion School on the Oglala Lakota College campus.

“Alex,” she called to a teacher passing by, “How much did you know?”

“Only phrases here and there, mostly from ceremonies and songs,” said Alex Firethunder-Loeb.

Now, Firethunder-Loeb, 28, is a teacher. And he hopes that his students will grow in their language, too.

“To have all these people here in my home, across the road from me, it’s just a lot of positivity and empowerment.”

For 11 years, the Lakota Summer Institute has been housed at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, N.D., on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Organized by the Lakota Language Consortium, an organization formed in 2004 by Lakota community members and linguists based in Bloomington, Ind., who work to revitalize the language, the institute comprises classes teaching not only the language but how to teach the language, too.

Lakota was never written down prior to missionaries and early tribal scholars introducing grammars and dictionaries. The goal of Lakota Institute, however, is not to teach a book language, but a spoken language. Today, first-language speakers number roughly 2,000. And learning can be costly.

“We are the generation who knows what loss is like,” said Frank. “I speak, I understand, but I’m like one of the ones who isn’t fluent.”

Ben Black Bear, 72, who grew up speaking Lakota almost exclusively until the age of 20, led the Lakota Studies Department at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. On June 7, he led a classroom of fluent speakers who are learning the mechanics of a language they already know.

“They still need to learn the grammar and the sound system,” he said. “They need to learn how to teach the language.”

In another class on June 7, around 20 or so students stood in head linguist Jan Ullrich’s class, holding toy animals and asked each other their names. Notecards in Lakota scribbled on the tables, textbooks open, bottles of water or pop out. Joseph Catches, 57, looked on, as classmate said “big cat.”

“Igmú t?á?ka.”

“I’m supposed to be fluent,” Clifford said. “But there were a number of animals I didn’t know. I guess only the common ones.”

The institute has four classes: three at intermediary levels and one advanced session. Just shy of 80 students completed the two-week program — a remarkable success, Frank said, in their first year. Lunch was provided daily, and each morning two vans went on routes picking people up. Some students came from university in Montreal or as close as down the road in Kyle. Textbooks were free. The goal is to make the language accessible to anyone who is interested.

“Lakota has such an expansive inventory of sounds,” said Arman Murphy, an intern with LLC and linguistics major at the University of Pennsylvania, who was visiting South Dakota for the first time. He became interested in Lakota after taking a Native American languages course in the spring. “Compared to many indigenous languages,” Murphy said, “Lakota is very robust.”

The orthography developed by LLC’s team of linguists is new for some older speakers. Older versions did not include diacritics, for example. The newer alphabet also includes nearly 40 “letters.”

Students standing in the lobby after lunch try out what they’ve learned.

“Khíyotaka yo,” said Otto Cuny, 29, from Martin, saying “go sit at the table.”

“My grandmother spoke it, but I didn’t take the time to get to know it.”

He now believes teaching Lakota is “kind of like my calling.”

His classmate, Destiny Leftwich, 26, earned a teaching degree from the University of South Dakota, where she also took Lakota. But her experience here has been more immersive.

“When he talked about revitalizing the language, it was really emotional,” said Leftwich. “I want my children to be first-generation speakers.”

After lunch in his grammar class, Firethunder-Loeb wears a stiff-brimmed black hat and joshes with students, trying to keep the mood alert during a dry discussion of gendered endings. He works to make the students laugh as they reach the 2:15 p.m. break.

Firethunder-Loeb grew up in New York City, but made visits to the reservation during summers to see his mother and participate in cultural experiences. Five years ago, he moved to Kyle and graduated from Oglala Lakota College, but even now, he said, it’s rare to hear Lakota spoken on the reservation outside ceremonies and prayer.

“It can be heard if you go visit the grandmas and grandpas at the post office. They have a senior citizen’s lunch and breakfast, and they’ll speak (in Lakota).”

He said it’s his goal to break the language out of the classroom.

“When I go visit my mom I try to speak Lakota to her. When I talk to my friends who I know are learning, I try to speak it,” Firethunder-Loeb said, mentioning he makes posts on Facebook and Snapchat in Lakota, too.

Reclaiming language is a small, but important, way to regain a part of culture torn away by assimilation. But the first step is learning the language basics.

At the opening to Ullrich’s class, he invites them to share reflections on their learning this week. One student says she’s gained new understanding for how the loss of language can impact political sovereignty.

Ullrich nods his head, but redirects the conversation.

“This is true, but we must stay focused on the language. We can talk about those things after class.”

Then he writes on the board, “Echú?wichakhiyapi,” which means “they’re allowed to do it.” And the afternoon class picks up.

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