Red Cloud Alumni Become Leaders in the Movement for Language Revitalization



Sierra Concha teaching



On a frigid February morning, Red Cloud graduate Elyssa Sierra Concha ’13 climbed the marble steps of the South Dakota State Capital in Pierre. She had driven hours from her home on the Pine Ridge Reservation the evening before. She wanted to be there early to prepare to testify in support of SB126, newly introduced legislation that would make the three dialects of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ—Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota—the official indigenous languages of South Dakota.

Sierra was tearful as she asked the legislators before her to pass SB 126 “for our children.” She shared that, “By passing this bill, you will let them know that who they are and the language they speak is not only recognized, but celebrated. I want these beautiful children in here and all throughout the state to feel nothing but pride growing up instead of having to fight for who they are.”

Sierra knows that struggle first-hand. Like most Lakota youth of her generation, she grew up with only a limited knowledge of her indigenous language.

“I would participate in ceremonies and I knew some songs, but I never really knew what they were saying,” she said recently. “For most of my life, I felt very lost.”

But all that has changed over the last year. The loss Sierra felt has been replaced with a fierce determination and a deep sense of purpose. She is one of a wave of young people—which includes many Red Cloud students and alumni—who are sparking the rebirth of their indigenous language. They are not just learning to speak the language themselves, but also sharing their knowledge with the next generation—serving as teachers and mentors for the youngest Lakota students.

Today, Sierra is the proud teacher of eight kindergarten students in the Iyápi Glukínipi Owáyawa Tȟáŋka, the Lakota language immersion classroom designed by Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation and based on Red Cloud’s main campus. Her goal? To make sure Lakota children never again have to “fight for who they are.”

“My grandfather was sent to boarding school when he was a child, and he lost his language,” she shared. “And now, to come full circle, where our children are growing up to be fluent in their ancestors’ language, it’s just overwhelming to be a part of that. We are taking steps toward healing as a people—and as small as my contribution is, as a teacher I’m pushing for that healing. I’m a part of that effort.”

Sierra has always known she wanted to spend her life helping people. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that she realized that sharing her indigenous language would become the center of her life’s work. As she began language classes, she discovered right away that she had a natural gift for learning and speaking Lakota—for quickly absorbing new concepts and vocabulary. But she also discovered something much more profound.

“In learning my indigenous language, my whole mindset has changed. I’m a lot more spiritual,” she explained. “Now that I’m getting closer to fluency, I can understand the prayers, I can understand when elders speak at ceremonies and tell stories. I’ve become so much closer to my identity as a Lakota woman, and ultimately this way of life, because I understand its meaning now. It’s a beautiful life change, of figuring out who I am and the beauty of our language.”

Sierra wants other Lakota youth to experience that same gift—and to empower them through the language. She has committed herself not just to learning Lakota, but learning it well enough to help lead the immersion classroom. She started that journey this past fall. And while teaching entirely in a language she is still learning herself is challenging, the rewards are immeasurable.

“At first, I was still very shaky with the language—I didn’t speak as much as I wanted with the children and it was challenging because I wanted to develop a connection with them,” she said. “But being fully immersed in the language for eight hours a day, I honestly took leaps forward in speaking. And because our students are growing up with our language and our culture, they are incredibly respectful and loving and ultimately very easy kids to teach. It’s been an incredible experience.”

Although it hasn’t even been a full year yet, Sierra says teaching Lakota has truly changed everything about her life. After eight hours of speaking only Lakota to her students each school day, she then spends her evenings taking—and sometimes teaching—language classes for adults. She knows now that her language will always be at the center of her life. She wants to achieve fluency, and will speak only Lakota to the children she plans to have someday.

She hopes that living her life in this way will help set an example for her students, and many others.

“Our students are used to hearing only much older people speak the language,” said Sierra. “By seeing someone who is closer to them in age, I hope they can look at me and say—I’m going to be her soon, speaking like she is. That can be me.”

Sierra plans to continue teaching for now, but her plans go beyond the classroom as well. She wants to pursue a master’s degree in linguistics, so that she can develop more complex systems and initiatives to help her language survive. She has imagined what it would mean to create an entire university degree program focused on the Lakota language. No matter what, she says, language will always be at the heart of her work.

“I will always keep pushing for more and more fluency,” she said. “I want to be involved with the language for the rest of my life.”

Photos © Red Cloud Indian School



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