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Lakota Language Summit underscores connection between language and identity


The 11th gathering of the Lakota Dakota Nakota Language Summit took place in Rapid City from October 6-8, 2021. Indigenous language enthusiasts gathered to discuss the state of Lakota, Nakota and Dakota language education.

The overall lesson of the event was that language is central to identity; and teaching, preserving, and growing native languages is crucial to Native sovereignty. 

Billed as “Uniting the Seven Council Fires to save the language,” the event is organized by the non-profit Tusweca Tiospaye (tusweca.org) from the Pine Ridge Reservation. The mission of the organization is to develop strong, healthy, and prosperous environment in which Lakota children and their families can learn and incorporate the Lakota language into their daily lives.

Speaking in the traditional way

Presenter Rick Two Dogs articulated one of the differences between speaking in English and in the Lakota language in his presentation, “Histories and Stories,” “In the traditional way, you don’t look at time when you speak. A person can talk fifteen or twenty minutes and get their point across.”

Two Dogs continued, “There are people who can sit and talk all night and clear into the next day. There was a man named Red Dog who negotiated the 1868 treaty. He talked from the morning, all day, all night, into the next day…He talked that long because it really bothered him, what was happening.”

Two Dogs gave his presentation entirely in Lakota and asked the Lakota speakers in the audience to share the story with the non-speakers.

New Lakota Language Dictionary

A new edition of the Lakota Language Dictionary for the 21sr century from the Lakota Language Consortium (lakhota.org) was presented by Rick Two Dogs and Jan Ullrich. Version 3 has double the number of words from Version 2, which dates from 2008. The new dictionary has over 40,000 words in total, documented from fluent speakers. The new app offers features to help Lakota speakers on a daily basis. 

Decolonizing language teaching

The event also highlighted the ways in which Indigenous-focused language education align with current research on the most effective ways to teach language. Sisoka Duta and Anke al-Bataineh presented “Dakota Teaching Practices as Evidence-Based Methods.”

Their content included notes that in decolonialized education, the student is the focus, not the subject matter. The student is recognized as an expert in their own education who are empowered to lead the direction and speed of their learning. Educators are charged with building community, health and liberation in their students.

These systems support the kind of learning advocated by Two Dogs in his session, “You are not going to retain this language if you keep translating it. You have to learn the language, hear it, understand it. It’s a lifelong process. And you have to a student of the language. You can’t do it here and there, do it in pieces, you have to become a student of the language.”

Evidence-based language instructions holds similar tenets: that language should be taught and learned in real-life situations and in authentic relationships; that variation within language is a sign of life and should be recognized and taught; that multilingual identity should be embraced for its strength and diversity and not made to fit into a monolingual world.

Lakota Montessori and immersion

The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation staff presented their Lakota Immersion Montessori program for grades preschool through elementary. Lakota Montessori is an approach to education based on human development and aligned with how Lakota people respect the spirit of the child.

Their presentation was entitled, “Indigenous Education: An Effort to Reclaim Our Language and Lifeways.” The program carries out “a radical approach to build off of our entire current effort to reimagine and redesign Indigenous Education to create an authentic Lakota.”

The presentation highlighted the Montessori education follows traditional Indigenous ways of teaching children, stating, “Only [through] recent violent disruption to our child-raising and education of children have we not been able to center the child as we have always done: boarding school, genocide, cultural genocide.”

Sitting Bull College staff also presented about their Immersion Nest daycare program for 3-year-olds (wotakuye.weebly.com/). The program used early childhood education best practices to teach children in total immersion. Their vision is “Fluent speakers, sovereign thinkers.”

Other sessions at the event included Drum Protocol and Etiquette with Earl Bullhead, the organizational structure of the Peta Sakowin with Edward Starr, traditional foods with Velma Kills Back and Evaleen Brave Heart, and “Using Winter Counts to Learn Language and History” with Tipiziwiŋ Tolman.

Editor’s note: Red Dog/Suŋka Luta (Hunkpapa, Oyuhpe Oglala, 1833?-1882?) was the brother-in-law of Red Cloud and an adroit ledger artist who drew accomplished warriors and horses in full regalia. He lived on Pine Ridge.

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