Third Annual Lakota Language Summer Camp Continues to Grow and Inspire

posted June 21, 2016 

Tókhiya lá he/hwo?          Where are you going?

Taŋyáŋ iháŋbla pe/po!     Dream well/Sweet dreams!

Ómakiya ye/yo!                Help me!

Red Cloud rising junior Elizabeth Cabrera beams as she shares her newest sentences learned during Red Cloud’s 3rd Annual Lakota Language Summer Camp. Elizabeth has been learning Lakota at Red Cloud since she arrived as a freshman and has loved the opportunity to study her historic language in the classroom. But this week’s summer camp gave Elizabeth the unique opportunity to practice the language beyond the classroom walls, while taking part in hands-on cultural activities—from learning about indigenous foods and medicines, to playing traditional hand games, to taking part in an inípi or sweat lodge ceremony. And for her, the camp experience truly made the language come alive.

“It’s really fun learning the language and more about the culture—and hearing stories about our people and how they used to be. I’ve been able to take what I’m learning in the classroom and apply it out here—to see what I already know and what else I need to learn,” said Elizabeth. “During last year’s camp, we played a game about emotions and I learned a lot about expressing emotions that I’ve been able to use when talking to my family. After coming to school here and coming to camp, it’s really helped me to understand and speak more Lakota at home.”

When Red Cloud launched its groundbreaking Lakota language curriculum over nine years ago, teachers and administrators made it their mission to integrate the language into every facet of campus life. Their goal was to encourage language learning not just in the classroom but across the institution—to hear students speaking Lakota on the sports field, at the lunch table and even on the school bus.

The Lakota Language Summer Camp is an extension of that mission. This week, the camp brought together a group of Red Cloud students, language teachers, staff, alumni, and volunteers—and for four days, they immersed themselves in both Lakota language and culture. While practicing their language skills, campers helped to construct the thípi they would sleep in under the stars. They learned the names of a buffalo’s body parts—and then practiced those phrases as they used traditional methods to cut meat from an animal recently harvested on campus. And they traveled to Wind Cave to see the sacred site where, according to the Lakota creation story, people first emerged from inside the Earth.

Emphasizing that deep connection between Lakota language and culture, says Red Cloud’s Executive Vice President Robert Brave Heart Sr., is what makes the camp so important.

“The whole idea behind our Lakota language curriculum is to encourage students—and ultimately their families and communities—to speak to Lakota as part of daily life. Our language is such an important part of who we are as a people and learning and speaking it allows us to reconnect with our history and identity,” said Brave Heart.

“Our summer camp gives our kids a chance to practice Lakota outside the academic environment. They develop a more personal relationship with the language—more than just a subject in school, it becomes a part of who they are. That’s the way we bring our language back to life.”

This year’s camp expanded activities to more Red Cloud students and introduced new programming and partnerships designed to help campers learn even more. Red Cloud’s core Lakota language teachers—who provide all of the camp’s language instruction—introduced students to more complex sentence structures and advanced vocabulary through new activities and games. For the first time, volunteers from Red Cloud’s AmeriCorps program helped to facilitate camp activities, from helping to construct thípi to serving as chaperones during the trip to Wind Cave. And also new this year, Red Cloud summer school students were able to participate in some select camp activities to enrich their summer learning. Camp organizers partnered with teachers from Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation’s Language Initiative to create a series of new Lakota language games—and summer school students laughed their way through hands-on, Total Physical Response activities.

“It was a real joy to see our younger summer school students practicing their language while having so much fun. And we were thrilled to work alongside language enthusiasts from Thunder Valley. Their creativity and knowledge really enhanced what our campers learned this week,” said Melissa Strickland, the Lakota Language Project’s program coordinator and the camp’s primary organizer.

“This year’s camp was a real success because we were able to open up the experience to so many more people in the community, from summer school students to AmeriCorps members. And that helps us move toward our vision of having everyone involved in language learning, from every corner of campus.”

During the camp, students are surrounded with support from teachers and organizers and, in that safe environment, they are able to let down their guard and really test out their new language skills. The camp also pairs students with peer mentors—either older Red Cloud High School students or recent graduates who developed their own love for the language and want to support other students in learning. These mentors assist with camp activities and serve as positive role models for younger students to look to for guidance and friendship.

For the third year in a row, Red Cloud alumna Carrie Beard (‘14) served as a mentor—because she believes the camp presents students with a rare opportunity.

“When we first started off during the first year, it was a little challenging because we were still working out the kinks. But now, it seems like we become more and more of a family. We’re able to bring in more cultural events and activities—and a lot of the kids keep coming back because they realize they aren’t going to get this knowledge anywhere else,” explained Carrie, who is also serving this year as part of her role as an AmeriCorps member.

“Growing up I was a little afraid to try speaking Lakota because not a lot of people did it. Not many kids my age spoke it and they were ashamed or too scared to do it. This program teaches younger kids that it’s okay to speak the language and bring it back—and to have that enthusiasm for our culture.”

Reconnecting with language, culture and community is at the heart of the camp experience. And for that reason, camp organizers have always integrated an evening community event that is open to all. Parents and families are encouraged to attend so that they can also be a part of the language learning experience.

The year’s evening gathering took place on Monday and the camp participants and staff welcomed close to 80 community members to campus to share a meal and dance into the night. Held at the campsite, the atmosphere was joyful and relaxed—and all around, people mixed in Lakota words and phrases as they spoke to one another.

Elizabeth’s mother, Genevieve Chasing Winter, joined in the celebration—and expressed her gratitude for what the camp has taught her daughter.

“I’m so glad she’s here and learning the language,” said Genevieve, who speaks Lakota to Elizabeth at home and says her language skills are increasing all the time. “For [kids] who want to learn about their culture, this is a wonderful place to be. “

Red Cloud’s Lakota Language Project is supported by the Administration for Native Americans, the Grotto Foundation, the Better Way Foundation, Steve and Lisa Ryan, and the South Dakota Community Foundation. 


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Photos © Red Cloud Indian School