Bringing Language to Life: New Lakota Language Revitalization Efforts Take Shape at Red Cloud

posted May 26, 2017

Last fall, a group of Red Cloud students took part in a ceremonial buffalo kill. The Lakota people have a historical, deeply spiritual connection to the buffalo—or tȟatȟáŋka. As part of a school service program, this group of young men wanted to teach other students about the ways their ancestors used each part of the buffalo in order to survive. But what’s more, they wanted to teach their peers about the buffalo by using their own indigenous language.

It was a moment of extraordinary pride for Tama I'atala, activities coordinator for Red Cloud Indian School’s Lakota Language Program (LLP), who says language revitalization is his “reason for being.”

“It was so exciting to see their involvement with the language. It’s part of who they are and they wanted to share that with their classmates,” said Tama.

“I worked with them to make a diagram of the buffalo, labeling each part in Lakota and explaining how to pronounce each word. We created a poster to share with other students, to show what each part of the animal was used for and how nothing was ever wasted. I helped in some basic ways, but ultimately I was able to sit back and watch them lead the process and teach our community about this sacred animal.”

For Tama, language revitalization is a deeply personal calling. Not Lakota himself, Tama is originally from American Samoa and grew up speaking his indigenous language. After moving to the U.S. at five years old, Tama focused on learning English and quickly lost his first language skills. So in coming to the Pine Ridge reservation, he immediately felt a connection to the Lakota community—a community in which fluent speakers are becoming increasingly rare.

“Although we’re working hard to save it, the language here is still in dire straights. The most recent studies say that only three percent of Lakota people are fluent first language speakers and many don’t speak or understand the language at all,” said Tama. “I’m only barely conversational in my own indigenous language—and I don’t want anyone else to have to experience that kind of language loss.”

Tama was a student teacher in Red Cloud’s spiritual formation department when he began learning Lakota. He saw how teachers and coaches were integrating language into their work—and he was inspired by the changes he recognized in students.

“I could see a sense of self-worth and pride and confidence being instilled in these young people,” he said.

He was swept into the language revitalization movement. He took classes first at Oglala Lakota College and eventually completed the Lakota Language Education Action Program through the University of South Dakota. Outside the classroom, Tama did everything he could to build his language skills, from labeling items in his home with Lakota vocabulary words to striking up conversations with elders speaking in Lakota at the local café. Ultimately he went on to support Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation’s Lakota Language Initiative, helping to launch its immersion childcare program.

Today, back at Red Cloud, Tama draws on all his experience to create dynamic language learning programs for students and the larger community. He has expanded the LLP’s community language classes so that once a week students, parents, staff and community members can learn how to speak more Lakota at home. Tama focuses on teaching practical phases that can be used again and again in daily life. And he makes sure to bring plenty of humor into the classes.

“I learned as a language teacher that you have to be super animated and ridiculous so that people are comfortable enough to try new things and mess up!” he said.

In his role at Red Cloud, Tama is also launching a series of literacy nights to share the wide range of Lakota reader materials created by both Thunder Valley and Red Cloud’s LLP. And this spring he has organized a children’s fair—featuring activities from a bounce house to bingo to face painting—that will be conducted entirely in the Lakota language. 

But Tama says he is proudest to support the Lakota language mentoring programs developed by Red Cloud and Thunder Valley—and seeing students become leaders in language preservation. This year, he worked closely with a group of eight high school students who applied to serve as language mentors on campus. As a group, they took responsibility for offering Lakota prayers during meals, leading their own sports leagues that integrate Lakota into practices and games, and teaching younger students about the importance of Lakota language, culture, and identity. And he is launching a new mentoring program in the middle school to give younger students a chance to become language leaders on campus.

Kasey Miller ’17, a high school mentor, says helping the next generation to learn Lakota was a powerful experience.   

“We were gym teachers for the summer school kids, and one of the activities we played was red light, green light. But instead of using standard commands, we used ‘Íŋyaŋka po!’ and ‘inážiŋ po!’ which mean run and stop,” said Kasey. “It was really nice to see the kids react to that and to know they understood. Language is the biggest part of our culture. And being able to share it and make it strong again, you’re really helping to bring back your culture.”

For Tama, seeing students like Kasey become leaders in the language movement—and teaching the next generation—is what his work is all about.

“There is a concept called wólakȟota—which means living in harmony and peace, and sharing what you have with others,” said Tama. “So we’re bringing wólakȟota into the language program, by connecting students, staff, families, and community members and helping each other learn and speak Lakota. By sharing our knowledge with one another, we can bring this language back to life.”

Photos © Red Cloud Indian School


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