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Hazards of teaching the Lakota Language

Originally published in

Native Sun News Today

on July 10, 2019

Mahto Luta was a Lakota warrior who lived near the close of the Nineteenth Century. He was the last of his line to have one name to identify himself; thereafter his male children, and their male children, would bear the surname of Red Bear their entire lives. Eventually this led to Manny Red Bear, who was born on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in 1961.

For twenty-five years, Red Bear, a fluent speaker, was a Lakota language instructor at Cheyenne-Eagle Butte (CEB) High School. Last January his contract was terminated, and he continued on until spring as a substitute teacher hired by the school district.

Red Bear was terminated as an employee of the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) for accepting monies outside his job. In this case, three supplemental income payments totaling $12,500 dollars over the course of his 25-year stint at CEB, supplements that were drawn up by a tribal attorney and delivered to Red Bear in the form of a check.

A gift from a tribe does not violate this BIE rule, and Red Bear claims he took this money with the express understanding that it was a gift. According to Red Bear, he asked the lawyer who drew up the paperwork if it was legal: “When (Steve Emery) first drafted up this differential pay, we asked him that, are we going to get in trouble as Federal employees? He said, ‘I’m the attorney here, you guys are questioning my work.’ He said, ‘It’s legal, it’s a gift!’”

But when it was later determined to not be a gift from the Tribe, but to be a violation of BIE policy, Red Bear was not only terminated, acting BIE line officer Casey Sobol considered Red Bear to be behind the entire situation: “When I talked to the Audrey Duran, the Retirement Specialist, she said, ‘Oh, by the way, Mr. Sobol said that you’re the mastermind behind all this, and he’s taking away fifteen years of your 25 years of retirement, and he’s not going to pay you 600 hours of second annual leave that you have.”

In a 2018 article on, a spokesman for the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the Department of the Interior said Red Bear and other Lakota language teachers at CEB took money “even after being admonished by their supervisors, and being told their actions violated federal law.”

The IOG summary continued: “We also determined that at least one teacher solicited for payments at district and tribal council meetings.”

He was referring to Red Bear.

Normally, in such cases, violation comes in the form of some criminal or independent manipulation of a system, such as willfully falsifying travel expense, etc. In the case of Red Bear, he asserts he accepted tribal supplemental income checks from the Tribe, based upon assurances from tribal attorney, Steve Emery, that the money was a gift, and therefore did not violate BIE policy.

Red Bear’s side of the story was not presented in the article, nor in any rationale offered by the OIG, which according to Red Bear initially approved the supplemental income payments from the CRST. It all goes back to low pay for Lakota language teachers at CEB, and the actions taken by the ten Lakota language teachers, with Red Bear leading the actions, to get a supplemental income “gift’ from the Tribe.

Red Bear: “They said it would take an act of Congress to get a raise. And we went through the whole system, we called Albuquerque, we went to the BIE school board…so, the CRST drafted up—they called it a gift—it was like an incentive pay raise, to kind of give us a little bit more on top. We asked Albuquerque, can we take a gift from the Tribe and they said, yeah. Five years ago, a new tribal administration came in and some of these new councilmen said that’s illegal. Two tribal council representatives, Bob Chasing Hawk and Mary Miller, plus five tribal members that work for the Bureau, reported us to the IOG. Bob Chasing Hawk came to me and said, yeah, Emmanuel, it was illegal to do that. A new guy came in from Albuquerque by the name of Casey Sobol. There was another guy named Eric North that came in earlier, and I asked him on behalf of the teachers, (I was the main spokesman, but I didn’t know I was putting myself on the line then), we need to raise this Lakota language salary, and he said, I’ll see what I can do. When Mr. Sobol became acting education line officer, I met with him, and he said, I’ll see what I can do. When they reported us to OIG that first time, OIG did an investigation, and they said, yeah, you guys accepted a gift from the Tribe so we are not going to prosecute you or do anything.”

The problem began with the low pay, starting in 1993, when Red Bear first hired on as a Lakota language teacher at CEB: “The BIE pays the salaries to language teachers. The salaries that are earmarked for Lakota language only go three levels: so if you have a Master’s degree you still get what level three ends at, which is $25…it specifically spelled it out right on the job description, there was no room for advancement. At one time there was ten of us, and the starting pay was $7.30 an hour. We work for the tribe, we get paid by the Bureau, and we have to be state certified by the state of South Dakota. So we work with three entities. So, we went to all entities, asked them for a raise. We do the same thing that a regular teacher does. I’m not only a language teacher but I’m a counselor. My classroom was the safest place for all these kids to come every morning, and I was Indian Club advisor. For 25 years, I went above and beyond my duties, teaching at CEB, and this is what they do to me.”

The question becomes, how did Red Bear get this supplemental income. Did he steal it? No, he was handed it, by the Tribe, in the form of checks, after what he claims were assurances by a tribal attorney that these payments were gifts that did not violate BIE policy. According to Red Bear, two CRST council members, backed by five BIA bureaucrats declared the payments illegal. IOG then reversed their earlier decision and declared the supplemental payments were not gifts from the Tribe, but illegal supplemental income.

Red Bear sought help from his union representative: “They said, you gotta go to your union rep (Tony Rowe), and I been paying my union rep for 25 years, and Rowe said you had your hand in the cookie jar. Why would I represent you guys, when you guys are guilty? He never even tried to protect us or defend us.”

Beyond all of his personal problems, and his termination, Red Bear said his main concern has always been the Lakota language, and that he did the best he could with an inadequate program: “We didn’t get any fluent speakers out of it, but they sure know a lot of information about our tribe. I teach language, culture and history. I make sure that they know their history and everything, so when they do leave the reservation, at least they know what they are talking about. I told them about my experiences in South Africa, people wanting to know if we still eat dogs, and I said, yeah, we eat them everyday, we eat corn dogs, hot dogs, chili dogs…”

There is a fundamental reason why the program did not produce fluent speakers, despite ten teachers and 25 years of instruction: “It’s supposed to be one hour a day, but it isn’t. Primary school, it’s twenty minutes per student a week. Is that going to teach some kid how to speak Lakota? After they make it to Third-through-Sixth Grade, they get thirty minutes a week. At the junior high level, they only have one teacher, nobody wants to work there. For high school, they get 55 minutes for half a year.”

Red Bear said that in April, 2017, the tribe passed an ordinance to do away with the new Lakota language orthography. Orthography is the conventional spelling system of a language, which can be controversial when languages that were never written, had no alphabet, are written out utilizing the alphabet of a foreign language and culture: “We have people that don’t even know about the language that are commenting about the language. That’s what kinda torques me off. They don’t understand, they don’t even speak. This new orthography, Bob Chasing Hawk don’t care for it, so he created a group, they want to do away with this new orthography and bring back Albert White Hat orthography, that doesn’t have any books, no dictionary, no anything, when this new orthography has workbooks, worksheets and audio tapes and video tapes you can watch. You can get online and do a lot of things. But this Albert White Hat that people are stuck on, doesn’t do anything, nor produce anything. So, I’ve been fighting it, to save the language. I told the council you guys don’t even know your own laws. We got to protect this language.

I said on the radio the other day, that it’s sad that people don’t speak Lakota at home, it’s sad that there’s no community activities going on to speak the language, keep it alive.”