New Volunteers Prepped for Using Lakota Language

posted on July 26, 2013

Making the long trek to Pine Ridge from their homes, a new group of Red Cloud Volunteers arrived on campus for orientation this week. On their first day, they expected to learn about the reservation and the local culture—and about what role they will play in the Red Cloud community. But what they didn’t expect was to jump into learning a severely endangered language: Lakota.

“With only 6000 fluent Lakota speakers left, Red Cloud is working to support a new generation of Lakota speakers—and we incorporate the language into every aspect of our activities,” explains Melissa Strickland, the Lakota Language Project assistant at Red Cloud. “No matter who you are, where you're from, or what you do at the school, you are given the wonderful task of using Lakota as much as possible.  So, it only makes sense to provide staff—and especially new volunteers—with an opportunity to learn how to do just that.”

Red Cloud’s Lakota Language Program (LLP) was created to revitalize the living use of the Lakota language and to deepen students’ connection to their cultural heritage. Through a unique, multi-year partnership with Indiana University, Red Cloud has been creating the first sustainable, comprehensive K-12 Lakota language curriculum. The program’s ultimate goal is to allow every Red Cloud student to achieve Lakota fluency by graduation. But the Red Cloud staff who spearhead Lakota learning say the curriculum could also become a model for other organizations working to preserve indigenous languages.

“Imagine a place where students and staff can see, hear, and speak the language regularly!” Strickland asks. “Because, this is what we're doing here. This is what makes Red Cloud Indian School special.”

Volunteers, says Strickland, are a big part of Lakota language learning on Red Cloud’s campus. Many serve as teachers and aids in the classrooms, where Lakota is integrated into almost every aspect of learning.

To get them prepared, Strickland arranged two workshops to introduce the school’s Language Program to the new arrivals. The sessions gave them time to ask questions and learn about the history of the language, go over the orthography (alphabet) and practice making the sounds that are most common in Lakota—and often unfamiliar for native English speakers.

“It's a big challenge, but it's so important too,” says Strickland. “We know that language acquisition is a major part of retaining cultural identity—and a strong cultural identity means a stronger, healthier student. By learning some language early on--before the school year has even begun—these volunteers are better prepared to make a bigger, more positive impact with the Lakota children we serve.”

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