On a recent Tuesday, 5-year-old Jessie White Face hid her hands shyly in the pockets of her pink jumper as she and 14 classmates recited "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" - in Lakota.
Jessie and her classmates are part of a kindergarten through second grade immersion school committed to reviving the Lakota language. Lakota is part of the "Dakota" language group, the third most commonly spoken Native American language in the country, but new Census estimates indicate fewer than 19,000 people still speak it. More than 10,000 of the nation's Dakota speakers live in South Dakota.
Over the past decade, the number of Dakota speakers in the U.S. has stayed nearly steady, but elderly people are far more likely than children to speak it. Thomas Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College, estimates less than 3 percent of first-graders on the reservation speak Lakota, while more than three-quarters of the reservation's 80 year olds know the language.
"You can see the trend," he said. "Unless you reverse that, you could be looking at potentially later generations, in 50, 100 years from now, no one speaking the language on the reservation."
Navajo is the most commonly spoken Native American language with more than 150,000 speakers. Nearly 20,000 people speak Yupik, the language of central Alaskan indigenous people. The "Dakota" language group comprises 18 language variations.
"It's right along with our identity as a people, our traditional ceremonies, our prayers, our songs - all of that's in the language," said Mike Carlow, who teaches Lakota to middle school students at Red Cloud School and four years ago started the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota Language Summit in Rapid City. "Do we lose all of that if we lose the language? How long will the language be here?"
Tribal educators believe immersion schools are crucial in reviving Lakota, but even the best immersion schools do not make students fluent if they don't speak the language at home. Many parents and grandparents are reluctant to do so, Shortbull said, because they remember being punished for speaking it while growing up.
"A lot of the older people say, ‘Well, when I went to school we were forbidden to speak it. When we went to town and tried to buy things people looked at us differently,'" Shortbull said. "They didn't want their children and grandkids to suffer the same fate that happened to them."
There are about equal numbers of Dakota speakers in the U.S. younger than 18 and older than 65, but the Native American population, particularly in South Dakota, is very young. Of the 13,500 people in Shannon County, which makes up much of the Pine Ridge reservation, Census data shows that nearly 6,000 people are younger than 20 and only 800 people are older than 65.
The immersion school in Kyle started three years ago and under the direction of Didier DuPont, a Frenchman who has immersed himself in Lakota culture, the class grew from four students last year to 20 this year.
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In the morning, students learn Lakota through alphabet sounds and vocabulary. After lunch, they cross the hall to the English classroom, where they learn math and reading. The day ends back in the Lakota classroom, where students sit in a circle and take turns reciting vocabulary words, introducing themselves in Lakota and chanting nursery rhymes like "The Itsy Bitsy Spider."
"They know they're Lakota and they should be speaking Lakota," said Alvon Little White Man, the program's lead teacher who taught at Little Wound School for 30 years. "Once they start learning their own language they're proud of it."
Mechelle Iron Cloud developed the interactive Lakota language curriculum teachers use at Red Shirt Table elementary school. Students use classroom technology to write words in Lakota and match English and Lakota vocabulary with their classmates.
"A little light bulb goes off in their head when someone speaks it and they can actually understand what they're talking about," she said. "It's something that is ours, and we have to keep that alive and keep it going."
But the most any language teacher in a non-immersion program can hope for is that students recognize and speak Lakota words. Fluency is rare when students only study a language for 30 to 45 minutes each day, Iron Cloud said.
Iron Cloud lives on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota and said she sees and hears Lakota in everyday conversation, tribal offices and classrooms. The language is much less obvious around the Pine Ridge reservation, but teachers are hopeful that the reservation's few immersion programs take off and the Oglala Lakota people revive their language.
"I'm just an ordinary man - I don't see the future," DuPont said. "My dream, my vision there is that that younger generation will take as much as they can get, they will take it to the future."
Contact Ruth Moon at 394-8415 or firstname.lastname@example.org.