« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

Associated Press, Published November 26 2010

Lakota language gets a boost

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Language, Tipiziwin Young will tell you, has the power to heal broken cultures.

Especially on South Dakota's nine Indian reservations, where poverty, alcoholism and violence continue to shatter lives and homes, Young is convinced that the Lakota language can be their salvation.

"Lakota is the language our creator gave us," Young, who wants to become a Lakota language teacher, says from her Fort Yates, N.D., home. "There is a beauty and power in our prayers, our songs and our words. ... that I think can be very healing."

Officials at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion and Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates see those possibilities, too. That's why they are developing bachelor's-degree programs to train teachers of Lakota as a second language.

The two schools have been awarded a four-year, $2.4 million grant by the Department of Education to institute the programs beginning next year and, within the initial four years, to educate 30 new Lakota language teachers.

The grant will pay for one instructor at each school — a Lakota linguistics expert for USD and, at Sitting Bull, an instructor specializing in second language methodology. The schools will be able to share the instructors, either through distance learning or possibly some travel, officials say.

The grant also will allow 16 Native American students at USD and 14 at Sitting Bull College to receive $2,000 a month for two years to pay their tuition, fees and living expenses

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime shot to build an important teaching force in the state," said Wil Meya, executive director of the Lakota Language Consortium, an Indiana-based collaboration among tribal leaders, linguistic experts and second-language education officials to revitalize the Lakota language.

Meya, whose consortium helped put the grant request together and works on everything from teacher training to textbook creation, said there are more than 120,000 potential Lakota speakers in the Northern Plains.

With the Lakota tribes having mandated language instruction in their schools in the mid-1970s, the grant will make possible for "the first time that a Native American professional development program will focus on language education," Meya said.

For people such as Young, the opportunity to teach a language she heard at her grandfather's knee is highly valuable.

"My grandpa ... he talked Lakota to me when I was little," Young, 30, said. "He died when I was young. Every time I hear the language, it brings me back to a perfect time in my childhood, when I was happy and carefree and my grandpa took care of me. When I hear the language, I feel really good."

Though she has studied Lakota, "I've never found fluency in academic settings because of the teaching methods teachers use," Young said. "For example, every teacher teaches colors and numbers and kinship terms from preschool all the way up to college level. But they never teach you sentence structure or verb conjugation."

Sunshine Carlow, tribal education manager for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said the bachelor's degrees being offered at USD and Sitting Bull will emphasize those language structures and provide a continuity in Lakota language education that doesn't exist.

As students move from family member to family member and community to community, "We've always thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to have a common curriculum if they go to Wakpala or Cannonball or Fort Yates?' " Carlow said. "These new bachelor programs should standardize the training and make it easier for students to continue their studies as they move."

The programs also will bolster a teaching profession where the average age of Lakota speakers is older than 55, and where few fluent speakers are younger than 50, Carlow said.

At USD, Rick Melmer, dean of the School of Education, said he hopes the program primarily motivates tribal students to get their degrees, go back to their communities or reservations and fuel the fires of young people there to learn their language.

Tribal folks have told him they want that, too, Melmer said.

In Sioux Falls, where there are 1,400 tribal youths in the public school system, the programs at USD and Sitting Bull also could create needed teachers for courses the district offers its Lakota and Dakota students, said Gail Swenson in the Office of Indian and Homeless Education.

"Once we get our Lakota language back as an accredited class in high school, we can't stretch one person to three high schools, and continue to rotate that person into the middles schools, too," Swenson said. "As more Native American youth come here, we would have a need for these kinds of teachers."

At USD at least, the program needs approval from the Board of Regents - a stamp that Melmer said is likely to come.

It also will need to be self-sustaining after the grant dollars go away, paid for by students who want to become Lakota teachers. Officials at both schools don't see that as a problem, either.

"We wouldn't have worked on this grant for three years if we didn't think there was a demand for this profession," said Meya, who noted that as payback for the financial help, graduates need to work in schools with native students in this area.

"The Indian population there in South Dakota is growing at three times the rate of the regular population," he continued. "We know the students will be there. This will help make sure qualified teachers are there, too."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.