A wave of projects targets younger children in an effort to revitalize the language of Lakota, which is spoken primarily by Sioux Native Americans in North and South Dakota.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — When Peter Hill’s daughter was born two years ago, he made a conscious decision to only speak Lakota to her.
Hill, who is fluent in Lakota after learning it as a second language, said he wanted Charlotte to learn the American Indian language from the start.
“By virtue of that … in terms of understanding, (she is) completely and equally fluent in both English and Lakota,” the proud father and Lakota instructor said.
Now the Pine Ridge, S.D., man plans to start an immersion day care to get other infants speaking fluent Lakota early. His is part of a wave of projects targeting younger children in an effort to revitalize the language of Lakota, which is spoken primarily by Sioux Native Americans in North and South Dakota.
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Fewer than 6,000 people speak the American Indian language of Lakota fluently — less than 14 percent of the Lakota population in the Dakotas — and the average age of a Lakota speaker is 60.
“My hope is if we can make it successful then other people that want to do the same thing can follow the same model,” said Hill, who initially will focus on infants from 15 to 20 months old.
The in-home Lakota Immersion Childcare is set to open at the end of October or beginning of November on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Hill’s mission is to immerse children in the language as infants so that Lakota becomes their first language rather than a second language.
It’s a lofty goal but something that parents want, even if they cannot speak the language fluently themselves. There’s a waiting list of 10 children.
Hill previously worked at the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge reservation. He’s searching for another caregiver besides him, preferably a woman who is fluent in Lakota and has experience working with children.
The plan it to expand the program to include elementary-school curriculum as the initial children reach school age. The early childhood component will be retained permanently.
Other initiatives are under way to start teaching Lakota at a younger age. Twenty episodes of the Berenstain Bears cartoon have been translated into Lakota, and an app geared toward kids learning the language has been created.
And on the Standing Rock reservation, which straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border, an immersion nest for 3-year-olds called the Kampus Kids Lakota Immersion program started in September.
Project director Sacheen Whitetail Cross said the program uses basic early-childhood teaching methods and a concept called total physical response, which uses action to teach. For example, Whitetail Cross said, students will use the language to describe their actions of passing out utensils at meal times or brushing their teeth.
The immersion nest is part of the Lakota Language Education Action Program, which is aimed at trying to increase the number of young teachers capable of teaching Lakota as a second language.
The Action Program offers tuition, room and board to qualified language students at the University of South Dakota or Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock reservation. Once completed, students are required to teach Lakota in a classroom for the same amount of time they received funding.
So far, immersion nest parents say they are seeing noticeable differences in their children.
Mary Wilson and her husband had been trying on their own to teach Lakota to their daughter, Tiwakanna Mentz, but the 3-year-old showed little interest in learning it. The Fort Yates, N.D., couple enrolled Tiwakanna in the day care and now she’s surrounded by other 3-year-olds, being taught by a fluent Lakota speaker and learning new words and expressions every day.
“Almost immediately her attitude about it has changed and she sort of accepts that it’s something that people use other than her mom or her dad,” Wilson said.
Another parent, Stephanie Yellow Hammer, said she is constantly surprised by her son Karsen’s growing vocabulary. The Fort Yates woman said the 3-year-old knows how to ask for things in Lakota without repeating someone else’s words.
Yellow Hammer, who does not know the language but grew up with her father speaking it, said keeping the language alive is paramount for the Lakota culture.
“A lot of our culture is oral so without our language we would have no culture. No songs and prayers for ceremonies and powwows. No way to pass on stories, traditions, beliefs and values,” she said.