STANDING ROCK SIOUX RESERVATION — Sunshine Carlow is racing to build a generation of fluent Lakota and Dakota language speakers before it’s too late.
Carlow, 40, helped lead a three-week Dakota/Lakota Summer Institute at the Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, N.D., on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Her goal? To ensure the language is passed on from fluent elders to the next generation.
“We only have limited time with fluent speakers,” said Carlow, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “We are working so that they know (the language) won’t be gone when they are.”
“Who is going to say our prayers?”
The language institute, in its 13th year, attracted about 130 people ranging from teenagers to adults seeking to learn the language in beginner, intermediate or advanced courses, Carlow said. She added that 20 instructors and 15 elders signed up to lead and assist in teaching the classes.
The institute, which lasted from June 10-28, is working to reinvigorate Dakota and Lakota — two dialects of the same language — after indigenous language learning skipped a generation as elders feared government-sanctioned repercussions of speaking in their native tongues.
Between 1869 and the 1960s, the U.S. government adopted an Indian Boarding School Policy with the express purpose to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” according to the Minneapolis-based National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. The group estimated hundreds of thousands of indigenous children across the country were removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools operated by the federal government and churches.
“There was a real survival reason we have elder speakers only and then a whole generation of non-speakers,” Carlow said. “The fear was that their children could be beaten, ridiculed, ostracized.”
But now, young adults are taking on the task of learning and teaching Dakota and Lakota.
Twenty-one-year-old Bobby Pourier and 20-year-old Chase Warren taught a beginner-level course during the morning session and took higher-level classes in the afternoon.
“Language is perhaps the most important thing going forward to remember as a people,” said Warren, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
They each had about a dozen students in their classes. Pourier, a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, said within just two weeks, his class had learned so much more than he had anticipated.
“Because we are Lakota, we have a Lakota spirit and that spirit is fluent in our language,” Pourier said. “You just have to bring out that part of yourself.”
Elliot Bannister, a 27-year-old language specialist from England, said “even after a week of classes people are having fluent conversations in the lunch line.”
“Each day you’re building upon knowledge you’ve gained the day before,” he said. “That way you build up conversational competency, awareness of the culture, without it feeling overwhelming or that you’re never going to get it.”
The language institute at Sitting Bull College isn't the only of its kind. Beginning July 8, the Lakota Language Consortium and the University of North Dakota are putting on a three-week program called the Lakota Summer Institute North. Six weeks earlier, the Consortium hosted the Lakota Summer Institute South at the Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
For the institute at Sitting Bull College, the classes vary in teaching styles. Beginner levels start with teaching the basics, like students saying their names and ages. And it’s repetitive, so students can get used to forming the new words and sounds.
Meanwhile, Denny Gayton leads a speaking lab, in which he says a phrase and students reply or repeat what he says. Often, he discusses people’s clothing, where they purchased it and at what price.
Students are “speaking constantly throughout the day,” Carlow said. “They’re getting the rhythm of the language.”
Advanced courses include the language acquisition and methodology classes, which discuss the best ways to teach indigenous languages. One of the classes works to create new Lakota and Dakota words.
Sitting Bull College students received credit for a one-semester language class if they attended all three weeks of the institute. Attendees could also come for just one week to learn more about the language and culture.
“This is a world-class institute for wanting to speak this language,” Pourier said. “And it deserves that type of language around it.”