Red Cloud's Lakȟóta Language Revitalization Work: Presented at International Conference 

November 30, 2019


On September 20, Red Cloud’s Executive Vice President Robert Brave Heart, Sr. spoke at the Ecology of Indigenous Languages Conference, held at the University of Helsinki in Finland. There, he joined renowned indigenous and non-indigneous scholars to share and learn about the future of indigneous languages in the midst of dramatic socio-political, economic, and environmental changes. The event was held as part of the International Year of Indigenous Languages, a United Nations observance in 2019 that aims to “raise awareness of the consequences of the endangerment of Indigenous languages across the world, with an aim to establish a link between language, development, peace, and reconciliation.” The following are excerpts from Robert’s presentation, which addressed how Red Cloud has worked to integrate the Lakȟóta language into daily life on campus, and to support and encourage a new generation of Lakȟóta speakers.

Bob Brave Heart

“Aŋpétu wašté!  Čhaŋté waštéya napé čhiyúza pelo! Good afternoon, I greet all of you with a heartfelt handshake.  My name is Robert Brave Heart. I am the Executive Vice President at Red Cloud Indian School, and have spent the past 10 years as the Director of the Lakȟóta Language Project.  It is a privilege and an honor to be here to speak at this Indigenous Languages Conference about Lakȟóta Language Revitalization at Red Cloud Indian School. 


In 2010, it was estimated that there were about 6,000 fluent speakers of the Lakȟóta language, according to the University of California-Los Angeles Language Materials Project. The study found that the language is in severe danger of becoming extinct. In the early 1990s, about half of the population of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation could speak the Lakȟóta language. Today, that number has fallen to less than one-quarter on the Pine Ridge, and is as low as four percent on other Lakȟóta reservations. The average fluent speaker is nearly 65 years old, and it is estimated that most of those are first-language speakers. 

With that background and context, I would like to talk about the history of Lakȟóta Language Revitalization at Red Cloud Indian School, what we did, how we did it, what we created, and the impact of the project on the students and community. 


Red Cloud had been teaching the Lakȟóta language for nearly 40 years, but the program was very ineffective. When I took the Superintendent position in 2003, I saw a need to conduct a comprehensive review of the Lakȟóta Language Program. So, we applied for and received a Grotto Planning Grant which enabled us to conduct a review. We held a series of meetings with the language teachers, administrators, and community members. We also met with consultants, the Lakȟóta Language Consortium, and the American Indian Studies Research Institute at Indiana University (AISRI). We learned three things from the review: we needed curricular materials for teachers; we needed training for teachers; and we needed to adopt a standard orthography for the Lakȟóta language. With that knowledge we made a decision to form a partnership with AISRI co-directors Dr. Doug Parks, a renowned linguist, and Dr. Raymond DeMallie, a renowned anthropologist, who helped us to devise a five-year plan to develop a comprehensive K-12 curriculum. The project was launched in the summer of 2008.


What We Did & How We Did It

First and foremost we adopted an official orthography and began implementing it campus-wide. Then we proceeded to develop curricular materials, through what we called “The Feedback Loop.”  First, AISRI consultants would create the lessons, then submit them to Red Cloud teachers to test in the classroom and make revisions. Then all lessons would undergo review by local speakers, where revisions were made. Then all revisions were sent back to AISRI and the lessons would be updated. The feedback loop was used on some lessons up to three or four times, and sometimes more. 


LLP Camp


By the time we finished the curricular materials in 2014, what was supposed to be a five-year $1.7 million project had turned into a six-year, $2.5 million project. But by the end of the project work plan, here is what we created:


  • We created an Alphabet book, hardcopy and digital, with audio.
  • We created comprehensive sequential K-12 Curriculum with Textbooks, Teacher's Manuals, and a comprehensive plan of study.
  • We created 2 song books (one for HS and for the elementary).
  • We created Classroom posters and flashcards with common words and phrases.
  • We created Professional Development Opportunities for both language and non-language teachers.
  • We created Multimedia materials (lessons, learning resources, games).
  • We created the Lakȟóta keyboard.
  • And finally, we created the Maȟpíya Lúta Owáyawa Lakȟól’iya Wičhóthi “RCIS Lakȟóta Language Camp,” and the first camp was held in the summer of 2014. This past summer we held our 6th annual language camp.

After the completion of the curricular phase in partnership with AISRI, we thought to ourselves, where do we go from here?  We decided that we needed to develop a framework for what we call “Phase II” which consisted of 3 major goals. 


First, we set out to create more literary materials, and developed readers for every grade level based on the vocabulary and grammar lessons in those respective textbooks. 


Second, we focused on outreach, and created opportunities for staff, parents and community members to learn the Lakȟóta language, including: weekly language nights called Lakȟól’iyapi Kichímani - Walking with the Language, craft nights, field trips for students, online lessons for parents and non-language staff, weekly social media posts in Lakȟóta, and our annual Lakȟóta Language Camp. 


And third, we focused on expanding professional development for our teachers and staff, by providing workshops, inservice days, weekly check-ins by LLP staff on lesson plans (methods, activities, assessments), and opportunities to attend national indigenous language conferences. 


LLP Camp 2


What has been the impact of the LLP? Independent evaluation reports have provided valuable feedback regarding the impact that the LLP had on the school and community, and included progress toward project goals, findings, and recommendations. I would like to highlight a few of those findings from the most recent Evaluation Report:


  • Administrators indicated that the Lakȟóta language program was one of the most common reasons that families gave for wanting their children to attend Red Cloud.  They believed that the use of the Lakȟóta language was becoming more common across the entire school, and they described how the Lakȟóta language was being spoken with greater frequency both inside and outside of the classroom.
  • Teachers and administrators agreed that the implementation of the LLP had a positive impact on students in both academic engagement and good behavior.
  • Students have reported that the best parts of learning Lakȟóta were feeling more connected to their tribal culture, history, and heritage, and sharing the language with siblings.
  • Teachers have reported that the most positive aspect of teaching the Lakȟóta language was hearing students respond in Lakȟóta to questions, and witnessing students speaking Lakȟóta outside of language classes.
  • Administrators have reported that Lakȟóta language instruction has transformed the atmosphere of the school and created more caring, respectul, and enduring bonds between students and staff.
  • Administrators and Teachers cite that learning the Lakȟóta language has impacted the students in developing a strong Lakȟóta cultural identity and values, and ability to view the Lakȟóta heritage as something powerful and positive, which is paramount for students to succeed, now and in the future. 

Today Red Cloud students are learning and using the Lakȟóta language in a stronger way than ever before. Students are speaking in hallways, in other classrooms, on the playing field, at home, and in the community. Parents and community members have reported that their children are speaking Lakȟóta to them and now want to know how they can learn. We are gaining momentum in the language revitalization process. With continued support, I firmly believe that we will continue to make significant progress toward saving the Lakȟóta language from extinction. I sincerely believe that what we’re doing at Red Cloud will become a model for other schools, in Lakȟóta Country and beyond.”




Photos © Red Cloud Indian School 


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