RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — Seven members of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate tribe will have a paid opportunity to learn the Lakota language this spring.
The Rosebud Economic Development Corporation is rolling out a new language preservation program, Lakolya Waoniya, which roughly translates to “breathing life into the Lakota language” in the coming months.
REDCO garnered startup funding through an anonymous philanthropic contribution and is now in the process of hiring a project manager and Lakota language teacher to build up the program. REDCO will pay seven Sicangu Lakota citizens a full-time salary and full benefits to learn Lakota.
While the salary amount is not yet set, REDCO CEO Wizipan Little Elk said the pay rate will be above minimum wage.
The purpose of the language revitalization program is to bring Lakota back from being functionally extinct, meaning it is not spoken conversationally in a public setting. Language is an important component of cultural preservation and celebration as well, Little Elk said.
The three-year program’s goal is for participants to become conversationally fluent in Lakota through commitment, rigor and immersion, the Rapid City Journal reported.
“Lakota is a second language because of colonization. I want to get to the point where it’s functionally alive and being used in an everyday context,” Little Elk said. ”Indigenous people are very practical. And in order for us to do what we do and to be who we are, especially when we’re practicing our spiritual and cultural traditions, it’s really important that we’re able to practice those traditions while using our language.”
Little Elk said of the 150,000 to 200,000 Lakota tribal members, there are a little less than 2,000 fluent Lakota speakers from all tribes. Most fluent speakers are older, with only two or three Rosebud Lakota speakers under the age of 30 and none under 18, Little Elk said.
On the Rosebud reservation last year, 550 fluent Lakota speakers were identified. A few months ago, that number decreased to 460. As of Sept. 15, at least four more fluent speakers have died, a trend that is expected to continue as speakers age, Little Elk said.
With those numbers in mind, Little Elk said there won’t be an age limit to participate in the program, but it is intended for working-age adults. The potential to increase fluent speakers under the age of 30 from three to seven would be of “massive” importance, he said.
“We want to introduce commitment and rigor to learning the language, putting in the time and the effort,” Little Elk said. “Then people (who) have the heart and desire for this, after three years, they should have a good level of conversational fluency.”
Little Elk said Indigenous people need to launch an incredible effort to reintegrate cultural knowledge and resources back into society. One of the biggest structural barriers to doing this, however, is time. By paying people to learn Lakota, Little Elk said that barrier is removed by giving people time and resources to learn.
“I know very few Indigenous people that are not interested in learning their language… Who has the luxury of just not working so that they can focus on and have the resources to pay for self-improvement? I know very few people in the world who have that kind of luxury,” Little Elk said. “So let’s just remove all those barriers, and you can take that time and have the resources to learn the language and not have your kids starve.”
The idea for the program came as REDCO thought about redefining wealth and what it means to have a meaningful existence. Little Elk said a meaningful life is about contributing to one’s community and doing good works for the world, and that Indigenous people need to be able to do those things while preserving their language and culture.
“Our real wealth is really our cultural perpetuity and our ability to pass that on to future generations. So that’s how we really came to this idea that if we’re going to make an investment, yes we have to do standard economic development stuff, but let’s also make a direct investment in our language and culture,” Little Elk said.
The program comes at a moment where there has been renewed attention on the United States and Canada’s histories of establishing Indian boarding schools, forcing Native American people to assimilate to a new culture. Little Elk said he is a fourth-generation boarding school attendee.
“At the same time, we also have to be focused on what’s happening now, and that the eradication of native languages is still something that is kind of being perpetuated through various systems. So let’s focus on these revitalization efforts,” Little Elk said. “This is not just a story of something bad that happened to us. This is a story about re-emergence and rebirth and the incredible efforts being taken to move past that and move on.”
The language revitalization program for adults is a complement to the Wakanyeja Tokeyachi immersion school run by REDCO’s sister organization Sicangu Community Development Corporation for elementary students on the Rosebud Reservation, both of which encompass a larger effort to reclaim Indigenous languages. Little Elk said it is important to have both programs working together because adults have to step up to support children in their language-learning efforts.
“We can’t put all the pressure on the kids… We as adults also have to step up and support our children. And a big part of it is creating an ecosystem of language revitalization. The kids go to school and they come home and they can talk to each other (in Lakota) but they need other people in the community to (speak Lakota) as well,” Little Elk said.
There are other, similar programs that REDCO used as guides, such as a Cherokee language program in Oklahoma. Little Elk said he hopes REDCO’s program can also serve as a model for other groups to emulate.
The program will begin in the spring after a manager and teacher have been hired, students accepted and curriculum developed. In informal conversations, Little Elk said people have been excited and enthusiastic about the opportunity — one person even told him it was their dream job.
Little Elk said the Rosebud program is a natural evolution of the larger movement for language and cultural revitalization. He encourages a multi-generational effort to bring Indigenous communities together.
“We just have to have everyone working together with one mind and one heart to move this forward… and we have an obligation as people, as humanity, to address these problems that are still impacting people. For us, it isn’t ancient history,” Little Elk said.