Equity & Diversity

Lakota Language and Culture Central to Schools on Pine Ridge Reservation

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 03, 2013 2 min read
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At Red Cloud Indian School, a private, Jesuit school that serves 600 K-12 students from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the Lakota language has been taught for four decades.

But a few years ago, Red Cloud educators launched a major project to revamp its language program and develop a deeper, more comprehensive curriculum that spans all grade levels.

The goal is to develop truly fluent Lakota speakers and repair decades of cultural loss on the reservation that is home to 40,000 members of the Oglala Lakota Nation, says Robert Brave Heart Sr., Red Cloud’s executive vice president for operations who spearheaded the project. The number of living native Lakota speakers is estimated to be just 6,000.

Since 2010, Red Cloud educators have been working in a partnership with Native language scholars at Indiana University to write a curriculum, create textbooks and other resources from scratch. The school also has developed its own Lakota orthography, or spelling system, that it uses to teach students.

Roger White Eyes, who teaches first-year Lakota language at Red Cloud’s high school, says most students—despite living all their lives on the reservation—have had little to no exposure to the language. “It’s truly a second language for them,” he says, as it was for him. The language was suppressed in schools his parents and grandparents attended. They were taught that Lakota was “useless,” he says.

For many older generations of American Indians who were educated in government and religious boarding schools, speaking their native languages was grounds for physical punishment.

Recovering that linguistic and cultural loss is a major priority for all schools on the Pine Ridge reservation, not just Red Cloud. As Mr. White Eyes explains, the language is “who you are as a Lakota, it’s part of your identity.”

As more Lakota children are exposed to the language at school, the trick, says Mr. White Eyes, is getting it out into the community. “I want students to use the language, not preserve it,” he says.

Red Cloud Indian School is a prominent part of Education Week‘s just published multimedia project on American Indian education. Please take some time to check out our entire project, including a video with Mr. White Eyes talking about how he teaches the language.

Roger White Eyes, a Lakota-language teacher at Red Cloud Indian School, pauses in conversation. Photos of his current and former students paper the wall behind him. —Swikar Patel/Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.