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A “grass-roots” strategy to revive our Lakota language


Most, if not all, federally-funded elementary schools on the Pine Ridge Reservation have been “teaching” Lakota language for decades. Isna Wica Owayawa (Lone Man School), for one, has been doing it since 1977. Regardless of all these years of effort, we are still engaged in retrieving, instead of using, our language. I believe its time to explore a different approach to effectively transmit our language to our youth.

I’ve written almost apologetically for years about our situation due to the contentiousness toward me and my articles about possible loss of language and culture. Yes, language is still being spoken. Yes, people still believe in our oral traditions and live the customs. Thanks to scattered groups that have taken to transmitting language and culture in innovative ways, there is genuine hope for us.

However, under the federal government’s scrutiny, we have had to adhere to funding guidelines as well as state education standards just to “teach” our own language and it has not been good for us. When are we going to take the initiative and start transmitting our language and culture according to our own cultural “standards?” Whether we are parents or certified educators, we have to think outside the box.

My older brother, Edward, suggested a strategy to help bring it back to a practical status. “Parents and schools need to talk the language at home and at school, as parents and teachers, bus drivers, aides, tutors, office staff, etc., so that the students continuously hear the spoken Lakota conversation. I think this is the greatest challenge that has been facing every reservation since the boarding school era.”

He continued with, “The language can be taught other ways.” He was referring to a strategy that is actually an ancient method use for centuries to transmit language, culture, history, and everything else that is Lakota. He added, “The tribal council approved a Lakota language resolution, only thing is that most of the council are not speakers.” In a round-about way, he was alluding to the fact that this federal system cannot help us.

In other words, every language speaker, whether a parent or school employee is to use the language with each other. You will provide our youth and all learners an opportunity to hear the language which is needed to increase the effectiveness of transmitting language. This is exactly how all speakers today became proficient and is the basis for language immersion programs.

True, we don’t have too many speakers left but they are out there. The schools can make it mandatory for all language-speaking employees to use the language with each other especially in the presence of our students. I may be overdoing it, but this could be a requirement in some job descriptions. If not, we can still do it.

We can continue to do what we have been doing with Lakota language in the schools but encourage speakers to use their language all the time. The Wasicu forced us to learn English but not too many people want to compel their own people to learn Lakota. I believe we should but I’m just one person. We don’t have to be as brutal, we can push gently.

Anyway, as a school board member, my primary concern are our students. It bothers me to think that the majority of the students whose diplomas I signed are going to “fall through the cracks” of the federal educational floor. We have been “graduating” students with math and reading levels that were not up to par. We do have an occasional “success” story coming out of this colonial system but a majority have fallen through.

Our consistent high dropout rates and low academic levels indicate failure for the federal “educational” institutions. This long standing method is the basis for “civilizing” the “savage Indian.” It is a colonial strategy to acquire full political control over the Oyate (Nation). It is time for a new approach to truly nurture our youth.

Recent studies on Indochinese refugee families and academic achievement in American schools provides such an approach. The scholastic success of Asian students with their stunning performance – particularly in the realm of science and mathematics – has prompted American educators to visit Japanese and Taiwanese schools in an effort to unearth the foundations of these achievements.

Experts recommend American schools adopt some Asian aspects of schooling, like a longer school year, smaller classes, or more rigorous tasks. Some of the findings are culturally specific as one points overwhelming to the pivotal role of the family in the children’s academic success.

This means focusing on our essential Lakota cultural support outside the classroom. We must realize that our Lakota nuclear family unit, as well as our tiospaye system, was destroyed in the 19th century and we have been enduring its devastating effects since. It is now a matter of deciding to do this or not.

(Contact Ivan F. Star Comes Out at

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