Maȟpíya Lúta Owáyawa Lakȟól’iya Wičhóthi:

Language Camp Inspires Students & Community to Use Endangered Language

posted July 22, 2014
by Sierra Concha '13 and Christopher Ives

In a shady meadow behind the football field, four tipis stood side by side. A small fire left a thin trail of smoke drifting through the trees.

Twelve students were fast asleep inside the traditional dwellings when the sun slowly rose over the hills last Tuesday at Red Cloud Indian School when they were woken up by a friendly voice: “Kiktá po!

This past week, Lakota language teachers and staff took on the role of counselor during the first annual Maȟpíya Lúta Owáyawa Lakȟól’iya Wičhóthi (Red Cloud Indian School Lakota Language Camp). Having been told to ‘wake up’ by the counselors, the eager students dressed and ran outside to greet the day. For four days they would be immersed in Lakota language and traditional activities, outside the the four walls of a classroom.

In 2007, Red Cloud Indian School launched the Lakota Language Program (LLP) as a means of promoting and revitalizing the Lakota language and culture through curriculum development, community engagement and culturally-relevant education. And as a part of that program, over the course of this last year, the LLP team planned a summertime Lakota Language Camp to create an immersive experience for students.

Day 1: Click on the drying tȟatȟáŋka to learn more about traditional skills & the sweat lodge.

Philomine, a Red Cloud High School Lakota language teacher and Elder, said that while the children’s spirit really led the camp, countless hours of lesson planning and years of curriculum development are what made the camp a possibility.

The trickle of water running through the White Clay Creek could be heard in the distance as campers gathered into their thiyóšpaye (family groups) for the day’s first activity: making pápa (dried meat) from tȟatȟáŋka (buffalo), with Philomine Lakota.

The goal was to enable students to speak their heritage language and learn the history of their rich culture accompanied by Red Cloud’s Lakota teachers and community members in a new environment. Through language games, storytelling, traditional crafts and a field trip to a sacred site, the students would strengthen their use of the language and their familiarity with Lakota culture, building upon the Lakota studies lessons they receive throughout the school year.

“Lakota has always been an oral language, which has made it difficult for some of us to learn it and retain it,” says Philomine. “In order for our language to survive, an orthography needed to be created and recorded. There are just not many fluent speakers left to teach it.”

To bridge this gap, with the guidance of community members, elders and linguists at Indiana University, Red Cloud Indian School set out to address this systemic issue.

Creating the Nation’s First Comprehensive K-12 Lakota Curriculum

The idea of having a standardized, comprehensive K-12 Lakota language curriculum seemed like a distant dream in Superintendent Robert Brave Heart Sr.’s mind. But Robert, now executive vice president at Red Cloud Indian School, saw the opportunity for youth to help keep the language alive. There are currently only 6,000 fluent speakers left, which made the need for a youth-focused, comprehensive language curriculum a crucial step toward revitalizing the language.

“Hardly any students were retaining the language,” said Robert. “Action had to be taken in order for them to learn how to speak Lakota and strengthen our numbers. We decided we had to transform our approach to teaching Lakota in order to really help save the language.”

Day 2: Click image above to learn more about traditional Storytelling and Lakota games.

As the Lakota language had existed as an oral language, Red Cloud had to develop the curriculum from scratch. After raising more than $2.2 million from generous donors and grantmakers like the Administration for Native Americans, the Better Way Foundation, the Endangered Language Fund, the Grotto Foundation, and with the help of linguists at the American Indian Studies Research Institute at Indiana University, today, the K-12 institution teaches Lakota, every school day, in all thirteen grade levels.

“The orthography and curriculum Red Cloud uses really makes sense to the students,” Philomine notes.

“The curriculum was developed in a way that helps the youth learn to speak it correctly.” She says Red Cloud has taken some risks in approaching language-learning in a new way, but that, ultimately, it will help the people, the culture and the language thrive.

Celebrating and Sharing the Curriculum with the Community

During parent teacher conferences, Robert Brave Heart Sr., began hearing stories of the success of the new curriculum. “There were parents who told our Lakota teachers that their students were speaking the language at home.” Robert said, “Although the parents were happy about this, [they were also] frustrated because they couldn’t understand what their children were saying. There’s only so much a student can practice if their family doesn’t understand [the language]. The purpose of this camp, and ultimately Phase II of the LLP, is to encourage families to learn and grow with their students, so that they can help each other and eventually have conversations.”

This May, 38 students graduated from Red Cloud High School as the first class on the Pine Ridge reservation to have four years of comprehensive high school Lakota language instruction. With the development of the curriculum under their belt, last week Red Cloud invited parents and community members to experience the curriculum for themselves, in person. Melissa Strickland, the on-site LLP coordinator, explains that the camp was a way of transitioning from the first phase of the LLP to the second.

Day 3: Click on the smiling faces above to learn the meaning of Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ and the how the students learned the Lakota Creation Story.

“As we approach the final stages of preparing our textbooks for printing, we are beginning to look toward the next stage of our Lakota Language Program,” says Melissa. “In Phase II, we are looking at new ways to outreach in our community and make the curriculum materials available outside of the classroom. This is our way of contributing to the growing Lakota-speaking community.”

Melissa says that hosting a camp was something they had hoped to do since the Lakota Language Program’s inception, as both a celebration of the new curriculum and a way to continue to share the work with others. As the curriculum was developed, Melissa says that it has always been a product of and for the people.

“The next step for the LLP is to expand the curriculum outside of the classroom and further encourage it to be used at home, with families, at events and in the community.”

Robert, Melissa and the LLP team knows that in order for students to begin speaking on a daily basis, the students must practice outside of school with the people they are surrounded by the most: parents, friends and community members.

But Robert is quick to note that the purpose of the camp isn’t solely about speaking Lakota; It’s also a way of teaching youth about Lakota culture and traditions. The students practiced their language while engaged in four days of Lakota games and traditional activities like raising a tipi, picking sage and traveling to Makȟá Oȟlóka, also known as Wind Cave National Park, to learn about the Lakota creation story.

A New Appreciation for Their Language

“I heard a young man say lé aŋpétu kiŋ wašté yeló, ‘today was a really good day,’” said Philomine as the camp came to a close. “They know these words from the school, and here, this camp empowered [the students] to use [our language] during conversations with each other and has given them the opportunity to speak Lakota freely outside the formal setting of a classroom.”

Why is it important for you to engage in Lakota language activities with your student?
I think it strengthens our family. By being able to connect with our culture and our language, it gives the children a better sense of their identity and where they come from, so when they go off the reservation or to college, they’ll remember who they are. 
                        - Amanda Carlow, Parent Participant

What will you take home from this experience?

I get to share what I’ve learned and hopefully teach my family something new. I can help my siblings understand it more too. My little brother wants to be in the camp next year so I can give him a head start on the vocabulary.
                        - Ale Rama, 8th grade

Melissa also witnessed positive effect of the camp on the students. “It’s been great. I’ve had kids come up to me saying that the camp wasn’t long enough and asking when the next camp will be,” she said. “The students learned so much every day and the parent involvement with the activities and language was fantastic. After a year of planning, I’m so happy to see that it came together so well.”

Paisley, a soon-to-be seventh grader, enjoyed participating so much, she didn’t want the camp to end. “This has been the best part of my summer,” she said as she helped take down a tipi with another camp participant. “I’m excited to do this again next year, and hopefully every summer after that!”

“As soon as the teachers come back to school in mid-August, we're going to start planning the next camp, and consider how we can utilize what we learned this week in our classrooms,” she said. “It will ultimately become an annual event open to the community and all who wish to apply. This is only the beginning of Phase II for the Lakota Language Program, and we intend to provide the community, families and students with even more opportunities to engage with the Lakota language.” This fall, when those students step off their buses and start a new school year, they will enter the classroom with a new appreciation for their culture and their language thanks to the Maȟpíya Lúta Owáyawa Lakȟól’iya Wičhóthi. With positive feedback already pouring in, Melissa said that this will not be a once in a lifetime experience for these students.

Read more about Red Cloud's

comprehensive K-12 Lakota language curriculum!


Photos and Content ©Red Cloud Indian School, 2014