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Lakota Language Immersion Programs in the Spotlight on Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi
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Photo: Lakota Language Nest

Tipiziwin Tolman is a Lakota Language Activities Instructor at the Lakȟól'yapi Wahóȟpi (Lakota Language Nest) at Fort Yates, North Dakota — on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The Lakota immersion pre-school is one of the programs featured in the new film Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi, a documentary about efforts to preserve and revitalize the Lakota language throughout the Lakota nation.

“It’s really a good opportunity,” says Tolman, “for us to share with the public and our own communities what we’re doing with our immersion nest, and our vision for the children involved.”

Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi premieres tonight (11/16) at 9pm CT, 8 MT on SDPB TV. You can also watch it at 7pm CT, 6 MT on SDPB 2.

Lakȟól'yapi Wahóȟpi, the first program of its kind, was started by Sitting Bull College in 2012. The Language Conservancy, an organization that supports the survival of endangered languages — and that produced the film — took notice of the program and similar efforts at the Iyápi Glukínipi Immersion Childcare in Oglala, South Dakota, the Laȟota Wóglaka Wóuŋspe Immersion Elementary School and Little Wound Elementary School in Kyle, and the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge.

The threat of extinction looms for the Lakota language -- only 3% of the Lakota nation’s 170,000 tribal members speak their mother tongue and the average age of native speakers is 70.

As the numbers of fluent Lakota speakers continue to dwindle, educators are turning to immersion programs as an effective tool for preserving the language by passing it on to the younger generation. “For the majority of our people on the reservations, we have had access to the language as a bilingual class that you can take as an elective in middle school or high school,” says Tolman. “Some schools require it for a half hour, or an hour a week, or an hour a day. But with that limited access, you’re not going to become proficient in any language. The advantage of immersion is that you hear the language all day, every day. At this age, they’re just soaking it up.”

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Children in the program receive all instruction in Lakota. Teachers don’t use any English. The students may weave between languages, but teachers encourage children to express themselves in Lakota by responding with positive reinforcement when they do. “The kids love that, and they really do pick up on the fact that we’re proud of them when they speak Lakota.”

Through immersion, the children receive a head start in learning their ancestral language that theor parents didn't have. “They have access to language that the majority of our generations have never had. The hope is that they’ll be equipped with their language as a tool to lead successful lives, in our homelands and wherever they choose to make their lives as adults.”

Navigating between very different languages is a learning process in its own right. Tolman recalls that, “We had a mother ask how you say the word for ‘scarf,’ because her son told her it was ‘oblótȟuŋ háŋska osní,’” which translates literally as “cold rectangle.”

“We laughed because she had been calling her scarf that for a couple weeks.”

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A living language continues to change and adapt, so Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi also looks at efforts to develop new vocabulary. Ben Black Bear (Sicangu) grew up speaking Lakota and is a central figure in the movement to preserve and grow the language. The founder of Lakota Studies at Sinte Gleska University, Black Bear directs Lakota Studies at St. Francis Mission School and is on the board of the Lakota Language Consortium (LLC) which publishes the NLD as well as Lakota language textbooks and materials. He says the efforts of the LLC are two-pronged: first, to educate and train speakers of Lakota so they may teach the language and produce curricular materials; and, second, to teach reading and writing skills to anyone with a desire to learn Lakota. “We’re trying to revive a language and we have to understand that language in order to be used today has to change,” says Black Bear. “The speed at which it changes and adjusts itself to the current time we live in is helped by people from the outside who learn the language.

Because new vocabulary is essential to a language’s survival, Black Bear oversees Lakota neologism development for the NLD. He and a group of 8-12 fluent speakers gather to create and vote new words into standard usage. “It’s a lot of hard work. We have to be careful about not creating an artificial language. We have to maintain the identity and character of the language.” New words must be rooted in Lakota, but direct English translations can be tricky due to Lakota’s disruption as a mother tongue and sporadic development as a written language. Historically, Lakota was an oral language until the mid-1800’s when Catholic missionaries developed a phonetic writing system and adopted Lakota for use in parish societies which Black Bear says were patterned after pre-reservation warrior society. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 placed emphasis on reclaiming Lakota language and culture and the 1970s also brought a resurgence. But widespread use of Lakota waned as speakers, according to Black Bear, died, left the Church, or became disassociated from Lakota identity.

Bernadine Little Thunder’s first language was Lakota; she didn’t speak English fluently until first grade. A certified Lakota language teacher and advocate, Little Thunder helped record the audio-version of the recently updated NLD and also stars as the voice of Sister Bear in Lakota Berenstain Bears (Black Bear is Papa Bear.) Currently she uses her bilingual skills in the Land Buy-Back Program to do outreach with elders who prefer to conduct business in Lakota. Little Thunder is passionate about language as an expression of identity. “Lakota gives me a sense of who I am,” says Little Thunder. “If we have our language it makes us whole.” She’s encouraged by the amount of texts and social media posts she sees written by young people in Lakota, a language she finds more precise and meaningful than English. “Our language is so descriptive and expressive,” she says. “It speaks from the heart.”

The SDPB presentation of Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi is part of our programming for Native American Heritage Month. For access to more programs on Native American cultural and educational subjects,