2016-07-14 / Voices

We Can Nourish Our Language Back to a Place Where it Can Heal

Tipiziwin Tolman
Wiciyena Dakota&
Hunkpapa Lakota

In South Dakota, where there is a teacher shortage and the state ranks as the lowest paid salary for teachers in all of the United States, teaching is a tough career choice. Teaching in “poverty” areas and teaching a language that is on the brink of silence, Lakota language teachers are some of the most precious resources and have one of the most daunting task that exists for our people today.

There is unique work involved in teaching the Lakota language in the academic world and it is directly related to the health status of the language.

Whatever the reservation or tribal community, the first step is self-education on the health status of your language. Six years ago, Standing Rock Education & Language Revitalization Department conducted a reservation wide survey to gauge the health status of the Lakota/Dakota language. A survey team visited all households to find how many fluent speakers lived in each community and to gauge what community would support language revitalization efforts that would eventually include an immersion nest preschool.

One of the survey’s results was that there was not ONE fluent speaking child.

The survey also found *zero* households where all members of the home were speaking solely in the Lakota/Dakota language throughout all daily activities, every single day.

Natural occurring language immersion environments (homes) is where every single fluent speaker learned the Lakota/Dakota language from their families. Fluency in a first language is believed to happen by the age of three with grammar and vocabulary being reinforced up to the age of ten. So it roughly took fluent speakers of Lakota/ Dakota to be totally immersed, surrounded by the language, all waking hours of all their days for up to three to ten years.

According to the survey at Standing Rock, the Lakota/Dakota language is NOT being spoken anywhere to a capacity where a child or any person could be immersed, from sunrise to sundown, every single day to learn the natural sounds and usage of the language in a manner where they can become fluent speakers.

I was on the team of surveyors and one thing I heard from young parents to grandparents, was the sentiment, regarding their school aged children or grandchildren, that they felt proud when their child or grandchild brought home language from school. A young father, mother or relative would smile and talk about this experience, sharing with us that their child spoke more Lakota than they did, that this child could say words, count and sing and often times they didn’t have a clue what the child was saying, but yet, they were proud. And the child learned this all from school, not the home.

A great responsibility is placed on our school systems and language teachers. The children who bring home words to their proud families are actually receiving minimum hours of language instruction. All of it is dictated by their particular school, for example, at one school they may receive one hour a week of language, at another school, it may be one hour a day for three days, or at another, there may be no space or time set aside for language instruction at all, or if they attend the small and growing Lakota Language Nest, they receive Lakota language immersion instruction eight hours a day. There is a great variety and no consistency in amount or time for language instruction in the schools on Standing Rock.

The people of Standing Rock are at a cusp in their history (as are many other tribal communities) and are faced with a choice, we can accept the critical state of our language or we can intentionally create (recreate) language rich immersion environments where the Lakota/Dakota language can be heard, spoken and learned in a capacity where fluency can be obtained. One critical component is the question - whose responsibility is this undertaking? Does this fall on our established school systems, on our fluent speakers, the matriarchs, the patriarchs of our tiospaye? Or is it our individual responsibility as Lakota and Dakota people?

I believe regardless of age, community, regional dialect, educational background, on or off reservation residency, blood quantum, level of trauma or poverty, (personal or generational), the language belongs to all of us and it belongs to the generations to come. And so, the revitalization of our language is our collective responsibility.

The window of opportunity is open to aggressively put forth effort to reverse the decline of our language but it is closing every day. Since the survey on Standing Rock many fluent speakers have left to the Spirit World.

If we put the love of our language first and are willing to work hard on its behalf, we can nourish our language back to a place where it can heal and help all of us. Tipiziwin Tolman, Wiciyena Dakota/ Hunkpapha Lakota is the Lakota Language Instructor at the Lakota Language Nest. Contact at

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