It is estimated that only 2,000 people continue to speak the Lakota language, down from 6,000 since 2005. Yet one growing organization is doing its part to keep their heritage alive.
The Lakota Language Consortium will host its 10th annual Lakota Summer Institute from June 6 to June 24 at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, N.D.
The three-week program is offered to three groups of people: fluent Lakota speakers who come to learn how to build their language skills, language teachers brushing up on methodology courses, and second-language learners who come to learn how to speak Lakota.
The program attracts more than 100 participants every year, quite a jump from an initial group of 18 language teacher participants when it started.
"Over the years we've grown in a number of ways," said Jan Ullrich, linguistic director of LLC. "We not only train teachers in methodology, but offer those classes to non-teachers, anyone learning to teach them how to be active learners and self-teachers."
That point, according to Ullrich, is key.
"It's important, because a three-week intensive (training) is a good way to introduce the language, but it's not a good way to accomplish high proficiency," Ullrich said. "You can't learn that in three weeks. What we offer is all the tools and knowledge on being self-teaching."
Nacole Walker, immersion school director at Sitting Bull College and a teacher at the LSI, agreed.
"They'll learn a lot about the language in the other classes, but it'll help them learn the sound system for the language and how to teach it to other classmates," Walker said.
The three-week program sees students starting class at 9 a.m. with language classes until 12:15 p.m., followed by lunch and class from 1 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. The second class will cover phrenology (or the sound system of the language) in the first week, and methodology in the next two weeks.
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Walker stressed that the courses move beyond rote memorization, incorporating Lakota poetry, song and dance, drama and more.
"We want our language to be alive, and if we just talk animals or colors or school terms, we're not finding a way to make it relevant," Walker said. "As Lakota people, if we watch plays and read poetry in English, we should be able to do that in Lakota. We're building fluency and enlivening our culture in the modern day."
Ullrich, who has been part of the LSI from its inception, said that he was encouraged that the institute was incorporating communicative and method-based teaching rather than outdated audio-lingual methods.
"It's what's effective, and as someone who has been involved with the language as a linguist for 25-plus years, I've come to love the language," Ullrich said. "It's important, because I care about the people who speak it or want to learn how to speak it."
In addition to bringing the Lakota language back, the LSI has assisted other tribes, with visitors from the Crow, Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa coming to take classes parallel to what the LSI is doing to use at their own institutes.
"With that, people at the Crow Summer Institute can use our model and take it home with them, so more Native languages can thrive," Walker said.
The enthusiasm of the participants and continued success of the LSI give Ullrich and others reason to be optimistic for the future of the language.
"I've seen the number of speakers drop significantly in the past 30 years, and the problem wasn't lack of desire but the lack of means," Ullrich said. "This is something we're bringing to the people. In a way, we've been able to redefine what it means to revitalize a language. We give them the tools necessary for doing so."