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Understanding Indigenous Culture in North Dakota Series: Traditional Language

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

Despite 7,000 languages spoken across the globe, half (3.985 billion) of the world’s population (7.97 billion) speaks only 23 of these languages. The sobering truth is that if a language is not spoken, it ceases to exist. At the current moment, approximately 90% of the world’s local languages are in danger of extinction. According to the United Nations, the preservation of Indigenous languages is “the preservation of invaluable wisdom, traditional knowledge, and expressions of art and beauty” that we can’t afford to lose, yet another language dies every two weeks.

Colonization was the purposeful root cause of indigenous languages decreasing in use to the point of mass extinction. Specifically, in the United States and Canada, residential boarding schools (please see CREA’s September 23 post) disallowed the use of indigenous traditional language for those in attendance, most of them forced. One of the main assimilation techniques used at these schools was the sole speaking of English. The results of the assimilation were devastating to tribes throughout North America.

Preserving traditional language gives cultures the freedom to speak, read, learn and express themselves in their own terms and in their own words. There are teachings within the Indigenous language where there is NO English equivalent. In addition, Storytelling is a critical part of indigenous culture around the world, and when the story cannot be told in its original language, imperative context is lost. This is ruinous to individual indigenous families and communities.

An example of revitalization of indigenous language is The Nest: Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi Wičhákini Owáyawa on the Standing Rock reservation in Fort Yates, North Dakota. The Lakholiyapi Wahohpi (Language Nest – full Lakota Immersion Montessori Preschool) and Wichakini Owayawa School (Lakota / English Bilingual Kindergarten-6 grade) opened their doors in 2013. The very first cohort was preschool students that received 100% of their education, 8 hours a day, 4 days a week, immersed in the Lakota Language. They have continued to grow up to offer grades K-6 Elementary School and down to offer 3 month to 4-year-old daycare/preschool. Their classrooms are a blend of babies as young as 3 months old through elders 75 years and everything in between in our learning language environment.

The students are not only learning the Lakota language and helping to save the language and culture, they are also learning the same early childhood lessons as students in other preschools, just in a different language. Research from other immersion schools across the world show that students who attend immersion schools often test better on standardized assessments than their peers given the information in English. Please see Red Basket’s suggestion of watching a documentary film on The Nest: Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi Wičhákini Owáyawa entitled: Rising Voices/ Hótȟaŋiŋpi.

Red Basket, Dr. Kathy Froelich, an MHA elder and CREA Indigenous Culture Coordinator suggests this classroom activity to educators: “We are more alike than we are different.”

Tribal people had their own children's songs for play and entertainment.

Rising Voices / Hótȟaŋiŋpi - Revitalizing the Lakota Language

Objective: Students will create their own special language word list.

During language learning time the teacher will circulate among students with blank index cards and markers. Students will tell the teacher their special language word for the day, the teacher will write it on the card and the student will draw a picture of it on the back.

Students are directed to trace the word with their finger 3 times and then do around the room and say it to 3 other students. The teacher will use a hole punch and put the card on a metal ring; each day a new word will be added to the ring. At the end of the week the teacher will review the words with each student. This lesson can be used when learning any language, it is student-centered.

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