Like many members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation, high school senior Kristian Big Crow never spoke his native Lakota language as a child. With only 6,000 fluent Lakota speakers left in the world, there are few opportunities for young Lakota students like Big Crow to learn the language. Which is precisely why teachers and administrators at Red Cloud Indian School, located just outside the town of Pine Ridge, spent the last five years developing the nation’s first comprehensive K-12 Lakota language curriculum.
Today, Lakota is spoken frequently across Red Cloud’s campus—and a new generation of fluent Lakota speakers is emerging. Students like Big Crow say learning Lakota has provided a deeper connection to Native identity.
“I was completely frightened to speak Lakota when I came to Red Cloud my freshman year. But I feel so much more confident now,” explains Big Crow. “Now even when I’m in Rapid City, my brother and I make a point of speaking the language to each other. It makes us feel proud to be Lakota. Because of the language program at Red Cloud, I have a better understanding of my culture.”
Tribal members say the Lakota language is inextricably tied to the cultural heritage and identity of their people. But for many decades, this highly endangered language has balanced on the brink of extinction. The cultural assimilation policies enforced by the U.S. government beginning in the 19th century forced Lakota students to give up their native languages and to learn and speak English exclusively. As a result, the number of fluent Lakota speakers plummeted.
Red Cloud Indian School, founded 125 years ago at the prompting of Chief Red Cloud, began teaching Lakota in 1969 in order to sustain the language as an integral part of Lakota culture. But according to Red Cloud’s Executive Vice President Robert Brave Heart Sr., the obstacles to teaching Lakota effectively were significant.
“It was extremely difficult to find Lakota speakers with the ability to actually teach the language, and textbooks and resources simply did not exist,” says Brave Heart. “Few students ever achieved true fluency—and in 2007, we decided we had to transform our approach to teaching Lakota in order to really help save the language.”
Six years later, Red Cloud is just putting the finishing touches on its comprehensive K-12 Lakota language curriculum—the first of its kind in the world. Developed in partnership with experts at the American Indian Studies Research Institute (AISRI) at Indiana University, the curriculum was carefully designed to build knowledge and vocabulary sequentially from kindergarten all the way through high school.
During the fourth year of the curriculum’s implementation, language test scores at Red Cloud jumped up by 84 percent —and teachers and administrators knew they were on to something. Today, more than 70 percent of students report using Lakota at home, in school and in their communities. Additionally, 58 percent of grandparents—many belonging to the last generation of fluent Lakota speakers—say they hear their grandchildren speak Lakota more frequently.
For Brave Heart, those statistics point to a renewal of cultural pride that is urgently needed.
“Hearing even our youngest students speak Lakota is inspiring, but it’s not just about the language. This curriculum is giving Red Cloud students a positive sense of their culture, heritage and identity,” Brave Heart says. “After many generations of cultural loss, they are learning to reclaim and celebrate their Lakota identity. Countless partners around the country have shared their support to help Red Cloud develop this curriculum. It’s a joy to watch that dream be realized.”
All of Red Cloud’s 600 students—from the youngest to the oldest—learn Lakota through the school’s language curriculum. Philomine Lakota, who teaches the most advanced high school language class, says the program has equipped her with the linguistic tools and support she needs to continue the work of keeping the language and culture alive.
“When I came here seven years ago, my goal was to help make Lakota language classes just as respectable as science or math,” she explains. “At other institutions, the Lakota language is not treated as respectfully as it is here at Red Cloud. Other schools tend to focus simply on learning colors, numbers or animals, but they don’t focus on putting it all together to really teach how the language works.”
With the curriculum nearly complete, Red Cloud teachers and administrators are now working to integrate Lakota language into every facet of campus life, inside and outside the classroom. After-school Lakota conversation groups encourage students to practice and, already, basketball games are announced in Lakota. The idea, says Melissa Strickland, the on-site Lakota language project coordinator and the liaison between Red Cloud and Indiana University, is to make speaking Lakota a normal part of every day at Red Cloud.
“We are beginning to incorporate the language into every aspect of our activities,” explains Strickland. “We train all staff and volunteers to learn how to use Lakota inside and outside the classroom. So no matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you do at the school, you are given the wonderful task of using Lakota as much as possible.”
With the new school year in full swing, Strickland is finalizing learning materials to accompany a new set of Lakota textbooks that will be released early next year. She and other language specialists have taken every possible step to ensure all Red Cloud’s language resources are culturally responsive and tested in the classroom by incorporating edits and feedback from students, teachers, key community members, and fluent Lakota speakers.
“You can’t beat sitting down with someone face to face,” says Strickland. “This program is unique because it’s being developed in-house by the staff and community.”
And despite the physical isolation of the reservation-based school, Red Cloud is also working to ensure the Lakota language curriculum is on the cutting edge of technology. Through the use of an innovative, online modular learning platform called Moodle, teachers and students have web-based access to all curriculum materials, tests and features such as a searchable Lakota dictionary, Lakota audio recordings and other multimedia resources.
“Students are already making use of this new technology. Only a few weeks into the new school year juniors and seniors are already using a Lakota chat room to write to each other in Lakota,” says Strickland. “It’s simply amazing to see.”
Ultimately, Red Cloud plans to share the curriculum with other schools in the region and across the country. This week Brave Heart, Strickland and others who were involved in the curriculum’s development will be presenting at the conference of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), the premier advocacy organization supporting educational opportunities for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. They believe the curriculum can serve as an effective model for other educational institutions and organizations teaching indigenous languages.
Teacher Philomine Lakota will be part of the conference presentation, and plans to share how Red Cloud’s curriculum has transformed the way she is able to teach Lakota language. Each day, she says, she can see the language of her ancestors once again coming to life.
“A student of mine works at Pizza Hut. When I go in and he sees me, he speaks to me in Lakota. Before, the language was just contained in the classroom—but now students are using it in the hallways and beyond. That really empowers our culture. And it gives me hope for the future.”
For more information about the Lakota Language Project at Red Cloud Indian School visit www.redcloudschool.org/LLP