Growing a Community of Lakota Language Learners

January 5, 2018


Tama I'atala, LLP activities coordinator, leads the language class in a group conversation activity.


Have you ever tried to learn a new language? If so, you know that becoming a proficient speaker takes work, but comes more easily if you practice with others as often as you can. That’s why every Wednesday evening you will find families gathering on Red Cloud’s campus to practice speaking, reading, writing, and listening to the Lakota language.

Several years ago, Red Cloud created an initiative called Lakȟól'iyapi Kičhímani or "Walking with the Language,” to create opportunities for parents and other family members to expand their knowledge of the Lakota language alongside their students. This fall, to celebrate a burgeoning partnership between Red Cloud’s Lakota Language Project (LLP) and Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation’s Lakota Language Initiative, both organizations came together to merge their family night events in order to connect with more parents, relatives, and community members.

Tama I’atala, the LLP’s Activities Coordinator and the host of these events, emphasizes that this program is meant for anyone who is interested in studying and practicing the Lakota language. “You need not have any affiliation with the school to attend these nights, these are community-based outreach programs. This is a ‘second language learning’ community that we are trying to establish.”

During a typical evening, attendees work together to read materials in the Lakota language, including a variety of age-appropriate books and online reading materials that have been developed and shared by Thunder Valley CDC’s Lakȟótiyapi Press. So far, these events have drawn students from pre-school to middle school along with their family members, and even some pre-verbal younger siblings. The program aligns with LLP’s overall mission of increasing literacy and speaking skills and making a push for developing readers.

“It’s important for parents to see firsthand the things we are doing with the language here at the school, and see the thrill the kids have when they are learning. What better way to do that?” Tama says. With fewer than 6,000 fluent speakers of Lakota remaining, engaging the younger generation in learning is a key strategy in preserving the language.


High School teacher, Josh Del Colle, participates in the second language learning session with daughter.


With a core group of about 20 attendees, Tama believes that the program will continue to grow as others begin to see proficient speakers emerging from this learning community. For these dedicated attendees, Tama notes that, “...what keeps them coming back is their interest in the language, wanting to grow with the language community, and see their own personal growth within the language. Also, there is a goal of one day being a fluent speaker. Their interest in raising their children in and around the language is also what keeps them coming back.”

For Tama, organizing and hosting these gatherings takes on a personal significance. Born in American Samoa, he grew up speaking the native language, but when his family moved to the States, he lost his fluency. “I was growing up with self doubt, a lack of self confidence, and not having a strong sense of identity. That was something I never wanted my kids to grow up with. I wanted them to always hold fast to knowing who they were and knowing where they came from. I believe that language is a huge part of that. It keeps them involved with culture, and in turn spirituality,” Tama shared.

In the coming months, Tama hopes to offer even more programming to engage young people in this language learning community, tapping into his background of coaching football and basketball. “Another component I want to bring is a fun game night. Bringing gaming into a family setting, not just a classroom, shows families that this is something different you can do with the language.”

With continuing efforts to promote literacy and proficiency in the Lakota language throughout the community, there is certainly more to look out for from the LLP and from Tama. “The wheels are always turning,” he says, laughing.


The second language learning class gathers in the High School library for the evening's session.

Photos © Red Cloud Indian School



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