Moving Forward: Red Cloud’s Fifth Annual Lakota Language Camp





Early this summer, under a warm June sun, small groups of Red Cloud students ran across campus calling out to one another in the Lakota language. They were taking part in a Lakota version of the “Amazing Race”—an interactive game that was designed especially for this year’s fifth annual Lakȟól'iya Wičhóthi or Lakota Language Camp. To teach campers the verbs “to come” and “to go,” the camp’s leaders set up stations all across campus, from the cafeteria to the playground and in the church, where each team had to complete a language activity. They had to do each one correctly before they were given another envelope with a note inside—in Lakota—telling them where to go next.

According to Tama I'atala, activities coordinator for Red Cloud’s Lakota Language Program (LLP), the camp’s lessons are always meant to be playful—and indeed, campers laughed all the way through their Amazing Race. But they were also doing something profoundly significant: learning to interact and communicate in their own heritage language.

"This camp is incredibly important because It gives our kids an opportunity to really exchange and utilize language in an everyday context,"" said Tama. "We’re in a situation where our language is in dire straits. So any opportunity that we can have to utilize language and encourage speaking and participation is a real gift."





With fewer than 6,000 fluent speakers of Lakota remaining, engaging youth in learning is a key strategy in preserving the language. But fluency won’t happen, says Tama, if language learning only takes place in the classroom.

"Language learning in the classroom can be limited. To get a lot of dialogue and students exchanging in the language, teachers have to be really creative," he explained. "During this camp we have the opportunity and luxury of being able to bring the language into a whole new setting."

Bringing language out of the classroom is exactly what the camp does for all those involved—including students, peer mentors, and staff. For four days and nights, campers and camp leaders focus on engaging in the language as they go through a range of activities, from setting up the tipis where everyone sleeps to telling stories around the campfire at night.

And this year, with the theme of coming and going verbs, Tama says the focus was on doing just that—moving around as much as possible.

"We always try to create a camp agenda that will be active and engaging, but this year we really focused on building a lot of movement into our activities," he said. "Especially with this year’s theme we got to go to quite a few places—to see the Crazy Horse Monument and its new exhibit honoring Lakota Code Talkers, and to Wind Cave, and to beautiful Chautauqua Park outside Hot Springs. Being able to do these things and to give our kids a chance to really engage in the language is so beneficial, not just to our campers but to our entire community."





Building a strong and growing community of language learners—including speakers of all ages—is another goal of Red Cloud’s LLP. And during the summer camp, all community members and visitors are welcomed and encouraged to join in the fun. Some very young speakers from the elementary immersion program operated in partnership by Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation and Red Cloud took part in two days of camp activities with their teacher Matt Rama. And elders Martha and Gloria, both Lakota speakers who support Thunder Valley’s Lakota Immersion Childcare, spent time at the campsite, giving participants an opportunity to hear the language spoken fluently.

During the final night of camp, participants, teachers, mentors, visitors, and family members came together for a community night, to share a traditional meal, play Lakota hand games, and celebrate all they’d learned. Talon Mesteth ‘18, a new Red Cloud graduate who served as one of the camp’s peer mentors, helped to guide some of the night’s activities. After being a student camper for the past four years, he was excited to finally have the chance to help lead the camp. It’s part of what inspired his own dream of becoming a Lakota teacher—to ensure the language is alive for future generations.

"I still sometimes get confused with the language, but I’m doing my best to keep up and learn more, and together we’re trying to bring the language back,” said Talon. “It’s so important to learn, because, without it, we don’t really have an identity anymore."






Photos © Red Cloud Indian School



Share This Story


Want to receive more stories like this?




New Video: Turning Dreams into Reality, what Red Cloud students dream of

Beating the Toughest Odds, New Graduate on the Pine Ridge Reservation Accepted to Seven Ivy League Colleges

Growing a Community of Lakota Language Learners

For Seniors, A Chance to Serve the Community