Copyrighted and in the Classroom: Red Cloud Publishes Original Lakota Language Books

posted January 18, 2017

Nothing can capture a child’s imagination like a good story. And reading stories is a powerful way for children to learn a new language. But when Red Cloud Indian School first launched its Lakota language curriculum almost ten years ago, there were very few Lakota storybooks available to share with students. So last year, the staff of the school’s Lakota Language Project (LLP) embarked upon creating their own.

Over the last year, the LLP team has been hard at work writing, editing, and publishing their own Lakota readers. These brightly illustrated story books are designed to help students from kindergarten through high school interact with the language in a whole new way. And this month, after successfully copyrighting the first set of readers, the LLP team will introduce them in beginning language classes on both Red Cloud campuses.

“We had a vision for these readers: we wanted to create something to help our students advance their language skills by reading stories that both inspire them and reflect their culture, history, and heritage. It’s been exciting to see these books in our students’ hands—to see that vision start to be realized,” said Robert Brave Heart Sr., Red Cloud’s executive vice president. “These books are another essential tool for teaching Lakota and, in doing so, supporting a new generation of Lakota speakers who are proud to know and use the language of their ancestors.”

Red Cloud’s new Lakota readers were designed specifically to reinforce the school’s unique, K-12 language curriculum, which focuses on building fluency as students work toward graduation. The LLP’s Program Coordinator Melissa Strickland has worked alongside anthropologist Nicky Belle—who led the development of the readers— in the process. The team was committed to creating them in-house and testing them right in Red Cloud classrooms. They set out to produce three sets of readers, including beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels, that would support language learning among students of all ages and abilities. Using the LLP’s original textbooks as a framework, they selected the grammar, vocabulary, and concepts to highlight in each story book. Then, they worked closely with native speaker Christine Lajtay to create stories to both teach and inspire students.

“We wanted these stories to reflect our students’ community and culture, and also to relate to their lives and their interests outside the classroom. So some stories might talk about taking part in a sweat lodge ceremony, or just about the joy of playing a basketball game—something that gets so many of our kids excited,” said Melissa. “I think they’ll serve as great resources and support for those students who are struggling, and also help to challenge those students who are more advanced. I’m so thrilled to be able to look into a classroom and see our kids using them!”

The LLP team poured decades of language experience into the development of each reader. Nicky—now director of the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center at Indiana University (IU)—was still a PhD candidate working with the American Indian Studies Research Institute when he moved to Pine Ridge to help launch the LLP in 2007. He spent three years on campus working with teachers in support of the K-12 Lakota language curriculum development. And today he continues to collaborate with Red Cloud as a consultant, helping to create innovative resources and tools to help teachers teach and students learn.

“When the LLP was just getting off the ground, we had to focus on the basics: building the curriculum and developing comprehensive textbooks,” said Nicky. “But now we’re able to do more to really go beyond those basics and put language learning into action.”

Having a fluent, native speaker to help create and edit the readers was a crucial factor to the entire LLP team. And in Christine, they found an extraordinary partner.

“Language is culture and culture is language. They are truly inextricable. So we needed someone with deep roots in this community to create these stories in an authentic way that would really resonate with students,” said Nicky. “Christine was able to both write and edit stories to demonstrate how the language is used in real life,using contractions and expressions that are a natural part of how people speak. And she infused her writing with Lakota culture and history so that kids aren’t just learning the language but also engaging in lessons about their heritage.”

Christine was raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation by her grandparents, who only spoke Lakota. Her grandfather taught her to read and write the language as well. She didn’t learn to speak English until she went to school, where, like many children of her generation, she was punished for speaking Lakota. But she continued to cherish her language and, like her father before her, Christine became a Lakota teacher herself. Today, at 73 years told, she says the language is still an essential part of who she is.

“I’ve never forgotten it, even after growing up and living off the reservation. It’s always been with me,” said Christine. “I speak it now with my grandkids and even my great-grandkids. And when I text with my grown children, I only write in Lakota, and they are understanding more and more.”

Christine retired from teaching years ago, but when Red Cloud approached her about writing and editing the readers, she was excited to help. She edited the first set of beginning readers for linguistic accuracy and cultural relevance. But she wrote her own stories for the second set of intermediate readers, drawing on lessons and vocabulary from Red Cloud’s curriculum. Because she was able to use more advanced language concepts, her stories introduce more complex elements of Lakota history. One book, for example, will focus entirely on stories about the seven sacred Lakota sites.

While the newly published beginner readers are being rolled out in classrooms, Red Cloud teachers and students are testing draft versions of the intermediate editions. Once the LLP team collects feedback, they will refine the drafts and then copyright and publish the new set later this year. As their writer, Christine is looking forward to seeing them; she hopes they will remind students of how important their generation is in preserving both culture and language.

“I really don’t want the younger generation to lose their language,” said Christine. “Language is our life. It’s who we are and what we stand for. And so it’s very important for me try to let the next generation know about their origins—where they come from. Our language and spirituality all connect together and I want our young people to be proud that they are Lakota.”

Interested in learning the Lakota language at home? We will soon make digital versions of our books—including audio—available on the LLP Resources page of our website. Check back soon for updates!

Photos © Red Cloud Indian School


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