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‘Our language strengthens us’
Community Gathers for the Annual Lakota Language Camp 

July 5, 2017


 

For sisters Carrie and Brianna Beard—both recent Red Cloud graduates—learning to speak the Lakota language isn’t something they do for themselves. It’s about restoring the strength of their culture and community. 

“We grew up with the language when we were younger, but we didn’t use it for a few years—and culturally, I felt like we were lost,” explained Carrie. Now, she says, after studying Lakota at Red Cloud, “I feel like I know who I am as a person, and who we are as a people. Our language strengthens us. It’s our identity.” 

It’s the reason why, year after year, Carrie and Brianna return to campus to serve as youth leaders during the annual Lakȟól’iya Wičhóthi, or Lakota Language Camp. For four summers in a row, the camp has brought together students, teachers, and family and community members to advance language learning outside the classroom walls. It’s one core part of Red Cloud’s Lakota Language Project (LLP)—a comprehensive, youth-focused initiative working to nurture a new generation of Lakota speakers.

 

 

With fewer than 6,000 fluent speakers alive today, the Lakota language is still endangered. Carrie and Brianna believe it’s their responsibility to help revitalize the language—and to encourage other young people to do the same. And serving as mentors during the language camp gives them a chance to do just that. 

“The earlier you learn the language, the more it stays with you,” said Brianna. “Seeing the kids faces light up when they remember a new word, or when they are able to create full sentences—it makes them feel they have a bigger purpose, to learn a language that is really theirs.”

Carrie agreed.

“During this camp, you’ll be walking around and start to hear the students practicing the language, even when no one is telling them to. They sit in their thípi or around the campfire at night, trying to remember the words they just heard. It’s amazing to see their interest grow—and how much they really want to learn.” 

And even youngest campers say they want to do more than just learn the language. They want to know it well enough to be able to share it with others. 

“Some people don’t know our language,” said one sixth-grade camper. “But if we still know the language and it’s still alive, and if we’re really, really good, then we can teach it to them.”

 

 

Surrounded by the Lakota Language 

This year’s camp started in the same way that previous camps have: campers worked alongside their teachers and counselors to set up their thípi, where they would sleep for the rest of the week. Camp leaders provided instruction in Lakota—while campers learned the Lakota name for each part of the structure. 

But according to Tama I’atala, activities coordinator for the LLP, this year’s camp pushed participants to engage in the language in a whole new way. 

“We wanted to give our campers really practical language skills that they can use right away at home, through the rest of summer. So we focused on things we talk about every day—how to use the verbs for coming and going, and daily activities like serving and eating food,” said Tama. “The idea behind it was not forcing a generic or pre-planned conversation, but to really give our campers enough language proficiency—and the confidence they need—to converse in Lakota in any given situation.” 

During the day, campers took part in more structured language activities, learning how to conjugate new verbs and apply them to everyday situations. During a field trip to historic Fort Robinson, an army outpost where Chief Crazy Horse died after fighting to protect Lakota lands, campers practiced the verbs “to come” and “to go” to describe what parts of the site they had seen. Each lesson and activity built on the previous one, so that campers were not only learning new words but also increasing their comprehension and speaking proficiency. 

 

 

 

This year’s campers also had the chance to learn directly from a group of Lakota elders—fluent speakers who learned Lakota early in life, as their first language. Thanks to Red Cloud’s partnership with Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation’s Lakota Language Initiative, the group of five fluent first-language language coaches—who play a central role in supporting Thunder Valley’s language immersion programs—were on site to guide and inspire campers, teachers, and staff. They took part in learning activities and helped to answer campers’ questions. And when night approached, they sat around the campfire, telling stories in their heritage language. 

“That was the environment we wanted to create this year—to make sure that, wherever our campers went during the week, the Lakota language was never more than an earshot away,” said Tama. “It was a really unique experience for our kids to be surrounded by these elders and to hear Lakota spoken fluently in that way. I think it’s something that had a real impact on them.” 

Youth mentors also shared their passion for the language—and helped to inspire campers to challenges themselves. Carrie, Brianna, and a number of other Red Cloud graduates served as camp counselors, staying on-site through the week to support language learning. And members of Thunder Valley’s Lakȟótiya Škíŋčiyapi (Staying Active Through Lakota Language) Program—a group of high school juniors and seniors who mentor students in Red Cloud’s summer school program—visited each day to lead activities and games. 

Through the days and into each night, campers had an endless stream of opportunities to learn—and speak—in Lakota. Their pre- and post-camp language tests showed how much their language skills advanced through the five-day program. But it was the moments when students began speaking in Lakota on their own, without prompting, that revealed the real impact of the camp experience. 

“One night, sitting around the campfire, one of our youth mentors began an impromptu shadow puppet show for the kids and telling stories in Lakota. And then the campers were answering back and creating their own stories, all in the language,” said Melissa Strickland, the LLP’s project coordinator. “It wasn’t something we planned at all, it just happened organically. And all of a sudden we realized that, hey, it’s working! The kids are doing language on their own—which is completely wonderful to see, because that’s truly our goal.”

 

 

Celebrating Language, Creating Community 

On the last night of camp, family, friends, and visitors joined campers and staff for a cultural and community celebration. After a meal of fry bread and beef  and vegetable soup, as well as buffalo hominy soup, the gathered group took part in traditional hand games, social dancing, and more. But language was still the focus—and throughout the night, campers shared their new language skills with their loved ones. 

According to Tama, for one proud father, the experience brought a major realization about the importance of language in building a strong cultural identity. 

“One of our campers began to make her dad a plate for dinner, and she asked what he wanted to have, speaking in Lakota. And when she realized she forgot utensils, she asked him—again in Lakota—if he needed a fork or a spoon. He was just flabbergasted, and he even had to step away for a minute because he had tears in his eyes,” said Tama. 

“He and his wife both speak Lakota, but he never taught his kids because he didn’t think it was a skill they would ever need. But after seeing what happens during this camp, he told me he realized how important it is to have language be a part of his kids’ lives, and that he’s going to start speaking to them in Lakota at home. When he said that, it was my turn to choke up. Because if parents and kids are starting to speak Lakota to one another at home, we’re definitely going in the right direction.”  

 

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2017 Lakota Language Camp

Photos © Red Cloud Indian School 


 

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