Philomine Lakota still remembers the feeling of her jaw being squeezed open as a 6-year-old.

She remembers how the matron would jam the lye soap into her mouth, how she would gag, how the suds would burn across her tongue and up her nostrils.

In the 1950s at Philomine's boarding school on the Pine Ridge Reservation, that was the punishment for speaking her native language instead of English.

It was an assimilation policy, encouraged by the federal government, that achieved its goal. By the time Philomine graduated, she was scrubbed clean of pride in her language and her culture.

Philomine grew to hate her parents. She grew to hate their dark skin and the way they lived. She and her friends would stare longingly at the pale-faced children in their picture books.

"We were the first 'wannabe's,'" she said.

Thanks in part to those policies, Philomine's language now teeters on the edge of extinction. Lakota is one of three dialects spoken by the Sioux people. In the 1800s, there were as many as 18,000 fluent speakers. Now, it's estimated there are 6,000.

The majority of those speakers are elderly and dying off. When a language reaches this situation, linguists define it as "endangered" — capable of being wiped out within a century, or even a few decades.

But in the darkness, there are glimmers of hope for the future of Lakota.

This year, Red Cloud Indian School, a private Catholic school on the Pine Ridge Reservation, began the final stages of a full K-12 Lakota curriculum — a first among the Lakota-speaking bands.

While Lakota has long been taught in reservation schools, it has never had the kind of educational structure of other subjects like math and science. Red Cloud Indian School's new curriculum, developed in conjunction with linguists at Indiana University over six years at a cost of $2.2 million, is new ground.

The program is not only poised to improve fluency at the school, but also has the potential to be picked up by other reservation schools and help improve fluency across the Great Plains. In addition, for a language with no standardized method of spelling, the curriculum's spread may finally mean a unification of its written form.

Philomine, now 66, rediscovered her cultural roots as an adult and now teaches Lakota at Red Cloud Indian School. She said she believes the curriculum may make the difference between whether her language lives or dies.

"Because there's no more fluent Lakota speakers," she said. "No one has an opportunity to learn it like I did. It was innate. And today, all Lakota people struggle with that."

Young minds, old language

On a recent Tuesday afternoon at Red Cloud Indian School, Beverly Pipe On Head's classroom was a swirl of color and tiny bodies.

"Íŋyaŋke!" the 57-year-old teacher yelled and a dozen first-graders began running in giggling loops around the room.

Pipe On Head tailed close behind. The group snaked between desks and shimmied by walls splattered in art work and Lakota words.

"Máni!" she yelled, and her flock began walking.

Pipe On Head brought the class to a halt and handed out worksheets. The children fell to their desks, pencils in hand, and began identifying cartoon characters with Lakota labels — "até," dad; "čhuŋkší," daughter; "tȟuŋkášila," grandpa.

Six years ago, before Red Cloud Indian school began developing its Lakota curriculum, Pipe On Head's classroom wasn't quite like this.

As her first-graders filed out of the room and bid farewell — "tókša akhé!" — Pipe On Head pulled out one of her former teaching materials: a black-and-white page of Lakota words. It looked bland and technical compared to the freshly laminated flash cards on her desk.

Before the introduction of the curriculum, Pipe On Head and other Red Cloud teachers taught Lakota in an ad hoc way. Teachers usually created their own lesson plans and their own teaching materials.

Pipe On Head said that caused problems. There was no teaching guide to build on what students learned the previous year.

That meant teachers focused more on nouns — reciting numbers and animal names — than teaching sentence structure. It also meant different teachers might teach the same thing in consecutive years. Or worse, it meant inconsistency: different teachers often use different spellings for words because there is no standardization of written Lakota.

"We got to middle school and we had two different teachers those years," said Caine Ghost Bear, a 17-year-old senior. "And the written language was so confusing because we didn't know what we were doing."

In addition to creating a K-12 teaching plan, Red Cloud's curriculum also sets down a standard way of spelling Lakota words. Now, after four years of learning under the new curriculum, Ghost Bear and other senior students say they have a deeper and better grasp of the language.

Savannah Jensen, 17, said, while fluency seemed to be higher in her senior class compared to previous ones, there seems to be another effect: greater pride in the language.

Increasingly, she said, students were greeting each other in the hallways in Lakota, texting each other in Lakota, and even posting messages on each other's Facebook walls in Lakota.

"It's just how it is," she said. "It's growing."

Why save a dying language?

For non-Native Americans who only speak English, it can be difficult to imagine why saving a language is so important to an indigenous population.

David Rood, a linguistic professor at the University of Colorado, calls language the lifeblood of a culture.

"Language is a window into how people think, into cognition," he said. "And every language has unique kinds of structures that require speakers to pay attention to the world in ways that we might not otherwise pay attention to."

Rood pointed to fundamental differences between Lakota and English.

In English, if you were to ask someone for a book to place under the leg of a wobbly table, you wouldn't have to specify what you needed the book for. The request "I want a book" would suffice.

In Lakota, if you were to make the same request, the language requires you to specify what you want to do with the book.

"It's these insights into cognition that I think are the most general reason for saving languages," he said.

For tribal leaders and educators, it's those nuances that embody an entirely different way of viewing the world compared to English speakers. That's why they see saving the Lakota language as so crucial to saving the culture.

But even if the motive for teaching Lakota is good, some may ask, is it worth learning a language that may have little practical value outside of South Dakota?

Rood said that can be a tough decision to make for Lakota parents who are choosing a school for their children. But he said the important thing is that those parents can make that decision for themselves. If a school doesn't offer a comprehensive Lakota curriculum, that option isn't available to them.

Ted Hamilton, superintendent of Red Cloud Indian School, said that the curriculum is not intended to isolate the school's 600 students.

"We are doing this to broaden their abilities," he said. "To expand their intellect, and the multiple languages that they learn can only help them with that."

He believes that will build on the school's already high academic reputation. In the class of 2013, 88 percent of graduates went on to post-secondary education.

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There is academic evidence that may support Hamilton's assertion.

Ellen Bialystok, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada, said becoming fluent in two languages encourages higher level brain development. She said that includes learning languages like Lakota, even if they are only spoken narrowly.

She said bilinguals are better at ignoring distracting information, are better at multi-tasking, and are likely to stave off dementia longer than their monolingual counterparts.

"So it builds better brains," she said.

Hope and controversy

Hamilton hopes that those benefits will eventually spread beyond the boundaries of Red Cloud Indian School.

Already, he said, schools on other South Dakota reservations were asking Red Cloud whether they could use their curriculum.

When the curriculum is finalized over the next year, Hamilton said he expects to meet those requests.

But that spread is likely to spur both support and criticism in Indian Country. Red Cloud's standardization of written Lakota, called an orthography, is different from many other schools.

Red Cloud's orthography is meant to be more phonetic than other orthographies. That means there are usually more 'H's than other versions. While many orthographies use "tipi" to describe the distinctive Sioux dwelling, Red Cloud spells it "thípi".

The orthography also makes heavy use of diacritical marks — the little lines above letters, like á, that connote different pronunciations — that is not popular among some educators and academics.

Delphine Red Shirt, an Oglala Lakota tribal member and a lecturer on languages at Stanford University, falls in that camp. While she supports any effort to bolster the teaching of Lakota, she prefers an orthography without diacritical marks.

"I'm very against any orthography that requires a special keyboard to communicate," she said.

Philomine, who will teach her eighth year of Lakota at Red Cloud next year, had similar concerns with the orthography. She didn't like changing the spelling forms she had learned from her father.

But she said she had become a convert. She said once her students learned what the different diacritical marks meant, it was easier for them to read, write and pronounce Lakota words.

"I believe that people will see how effective it is," she said. "I can see it."

More importantly, Philomine said, if Red Cloud's curriculum is picked up by other schools, it may finally push Lakota-speaking tribes to adopt the orthography themselves. She said that will create consistency across the region and encourage the long-term viability of the language.

However, Philomine is also cognizant that it will take more than a school curriculum to preserve the language.

In order for a language to survive, she said, it can't simply be taught from the top. A language is a living thing and students need to breathe life into it daily; talking with friends, family and elders in Lakota.

She said it's up to their generation to undo the cultural damage inflicted upon her own. Because, ultimately, the price of failure is a cost too high to bear.

"We will no longer be a people," she said. "It will be a sad for day all of us."

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