Red Cloud Presents Lakota Language Curriculum at Premier Native Education Conference

posted on November 14, 2013

This October, in the Alpine Room of Rapid City’s Civic Center, attendees of the 44th Annual National Indian Education Association (NIEA) conference began to take their seats, waiting to hear how a small nonprofit like Red Cloud is helping renew a Native language on the edge of extinction. With seats filled well before the presentation was set to begin, a steady stream of education professionals from across the country looked for places to squeeze in at the back of the room. 

For Robert Brave Heart Sr., Red Cloud’s executive vice president who spearheaded its innovative Lakota language curriculum, the overwhelming response to the presentation was thrilling.

“The event staff told us to plan for fifty participants. We printed fifty information packets, and we ran out 5 minutes ago!” he joked with the crowd. “We’ll have more printed and available after the presentation.”  

And with that, Brave Heart introduced Red Cloud’s LLP, the nation’s first comprehensive, K-12 Lakota language curriculum that was developed in partnership with Indiana University’s American Indian Studies Research Institute (AISRI) starting in 2007. At the time, explained Brave Heart, Red Cloud’s administrators and teachers realized that more had to be done to revitalize the Lakota language, which is spoken fluently by only 6,000 people in the world.

“It was extremely difficult to find Lakota speakers with the ability to actually teach the language,” Brave Heart shared. “Few students ever achieved true fluency… and so we decided we had to transform our approach to teaching Lakota in order to really help save the language.”

 Red Cloud Indian School on Vimeo.

Brave Heart, Melissa Strickland, the LLP’s on-site coordinator, and high school Lakota teacher Philomine Lakota provided an overview of LLPs implementation over the last six years. The project has represented a massive undertaking for a small, physically-isolated nonprofit school like Red Cloud, they explained. But its successes have been well worth it. After years of planning and editing, the project has now touched on every grade level and the finishing touches are being put on the school’s own set of books and materials.

Today, the Lakota language can be seen and heard in classrooms across Red Cloud’s campuses. As Brave Heart, Strickland and Lakota shared, a typical kindergartener at Red Cloud will spend each day in classrooms with Lakota phrases like “Mašké, taŋyáŋ yahí kštó!” (Friend, it’s good you’ve come!) posted around the room. Red Cloud’s new language curriculum follows students as they grow--so that each year their Lakota language skills build on prior years’ learning. The goal, explained Strickland, is for all Red Cloud High School graduates to achieve a basic fluency, informed by thirteen years of culturally responsive Lakota language and culture classes, including traditional drumming and songs, ceremonies, and composition.

“This program is unique because it's being developed in-house by the staff and community,” Strickland said. “Throughout the development of the project we’ve incorporated edits and feedback from students, teachers, key community members, and fluent Lakota speakers.”

Teacher Philomine Lakota, who instructs Red Cloud’s most advanced Lakota language class, shared how the curriculum has truly changed the way students learn the language. She recalled a student who stopped her in the hallway before she left for the conference to tell her, “Taŋyáŋ níŋkte Uŋčí Philomine! Maȟpíya Lúta Owáyawa él waóta wašté ečhúŋk'uŋpi owíčhakiyaka ye.” (It's good that you will be going, Grandmother Philomine! Tell them all the good things we're doing at Red Cloud Indian School!).

Conference participants from across the country were excited to learn how Red Cloud is supporting a new generation of fluent Lakota speakers.

“Speaking your language, whether it is reciting a list of nouns or conjugated verbs in a classroom setting, is an opportunity to ‘awaken’ your heritage language,” said alumna Delphine Red Shirt ‘75, a professor at Stanford University who was also presenting on Lakota language learning at the NIEA conference. “The people listening will thank you; all of your Lakota ancestors, thank you.”

Ester Arnaq Ilutsik, Director of Yupik Studies Program in Dillingham, Alaska said Red Cloud’s curriculum could serve as a model for schools like hers.

“I was very impressed with the presentation, and the curriculum was very well organized. I think I’ll be able to utilize the information Red Cloud presented in my work back home as we look at language learning in our own communities.”

For Beverly Grey Water (Maȟpíya Hó Wašté Wiŋ), Dakota and Mohawk, of the Spirit Lake Tribe’s Early Childhood Tracking, Red Cloud’s curriculum inspired hope that Native languages and cultures can thrive again, even in the wake of the damaging policies of the past.

“There is this language block that many of us have - to not speak our languages - but coming to a workshop like this makes me think ‘Ok, I can do this now.’ My husband believes that when he leaves this world he needs to know our language to speak with his ancestors—so we have a lot of work to do!”

All Content ©Red Cloud Indian School, 2013