A showdown is brewing on Cheyenne River, between the tribal council and Lakota Language and Culture instructors.
At the heart of the issue is Ordinance 66, legislation passed by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Council in 1994. The ordinance mandates that Lakota Language be taught in all reservation schools, ensuring that by the time a student graduates, they will be fluent in Lakota language, written and spoken, and knowledgeable in Lakota history and culture.
Fast forward 23 years, a group of Lakota Instructors and elders have filed a restraining order in Tribal court, to prevent the council from taking any action that affects Ordinance 66.
The group’s spokesman, Shannon Brown claims that recent action taken by the Tribal Council goes against the council’s own ordinance.
“They are taking tribal officials to court to comply with existing tribal and federal law. They [council] are in violation of the oath of office they took. They [instructors] shouldn’t have to be doing that, council should be fulfilling their responsibilities under these laws, without question and hesitation,” said Brown.
In May, District 5 Council Representative Robert Chasing Hawk, made a motion to rescind Tribal Resolution 580-2011-CR. The motion was passed but later rescinded and referred on to the Wolakota Committee.
Resolution 580-2011, which was passed in 2011, provided an additional $5/hour in compensation for the instructors on top of their salaries they receive through the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE).
According to Brown, the instructors are paid $12.00 an hour through the BIE with no room for advancement and they are the lowest paid teachers in the state. The 2011 resolution was meant to be an equalizer of sorts in the pay.
Comparatively he said, a new BIE Math Teacher starts at $50,000, an equivalent of $24.00 an hour, plus after three years student loans are forgiven.
The instructors say they have four entities that they must work through, the district school board, the BIE, the tribe, and also the State of South Dakota. They further state that they must be certified through the State of South Dakota which requires yearly refresher trainings as provided by the Lakota Language Consortium, which is mandated in Resolution 580.
In the past, they have attended the Lakota Summer Institute held at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota. However, this year they weren’t able to attend.
In a letter dated May 23, 2017 from Acting C-EB Principal Eric North, travel to the institute was denied for an instructor stating that the CRST has asked that the school not do business with companies from North Dakota.
“They are attacking these individuals who are trying to protect and preserve our language and culture for our future generations,” said Brown. “Every step of the way, obstacles are put in the way. Think about it this way, there are only nine here, if they walked away, who would teach our language and culture.”
In a letter to the West River Eagle last week, Chasing Hawk defended his motion stating he doesn’t believe the instructors are doing their jobs effectively in that they are not producing fluent speakers as required by Ordinance 66.
Chasing Hawk wrote: “How many of your high school graduates could speak Lakota fluently? Be able to have a conversation with a Lakota fluent speaker? Ordinance 66 is a tribal law, it says, “High School graduates must speak Lakota fluently”, that’s why I strongly felt that the Lakota instructors doesn’t deserve this pay differential per Resolution 580-2011- CR.”
Chasing Hawk also wrote that he doesn’t believe the instructors should be receiving training and following the curriculum from the Lakota Language Consortium, which was developed by a non-indian. Chasing Hawk stated that the instructors need to be consulting with Lakota elders to get some useful ideas to keep the oral language alive.
Brown said there is a curriculum in place. “Why re-invent the wheel.”
In response to Chasing Hawk’s charge that the teachers aren’t doing their job, the group said for results look at the trophies C-EB students have been winning at the LNI Knowledge Bowl. The Elementary and Upper Elementary have won the last three years.
“They are LNI champions,” said Brown.
The group believes that every effort they make along the way is being hampered by the council and also that the language programs aren’t being adequately funded, nor is the position of a Compliance Officer, which is mandated by Ordinance 66.
“They don’t even fund the Compliance Officer, to keep the schools in compliance,” added Brown.
According to Brown, “these individuals finally got tired of being sent around to the budget committee, Wolakota committee, the chairman, and tribal council, they had to bring suit to protect the Lakota language and culture of being done away with, and to get compensated for past years that is due under Resolution 580.”
“Our tribal leaders have a responsibility to ensure that our Lakota language, history, and culture is preserved, because that is our political identity, which is the basis of our trust relationship between our people and the United States government and our treaties. Without that political identity being maintained by our people, the US government can terminate us as a people,” said Brown. “This is how important the work that the teachers are doing, for our future generations, while trying to work in a hostile work environment; and they are being discriminated against in that work environment.”
“I’d like to point out that out of 170,000 Lakota people living today, only 2,000 are fluent speakers, our language is getting ready to die out and they are attacking these teachers.”
Brown believes the schools could’ve addressed a lot of these things administratively.
“They could have changed the job description, so they can progress with promotion. The job description states there is no opportunity for promotion, to get a higher wage. They are at a separate level than a regular school teacher, there’s no room for progress or steps.”
A court hearing was scheduled for Tuesday, June 20 to determine if the groups restraining order will be enacted or denied. A walk was held down Main Street in Eagle Butte to the courthouse on Tuesday afternoon prior to the court hearing.