Lakota Language Classes Help Students Embrace Their Culture

Jonathan Holmes okibjonathan at
Tue Mar 7 20:34:08 UTC 2006

Thought there may be some who would find this interesting.
  Lakota Language Classes Help Students Embrace Their Culture 
By Andrea J. Cook, Staff Writer 
Rapid City Journal - 6 March 2006 

RAPID CITY, SD — After two years of Spanish, Morgan Catlett has continued earning world language credit in Rapid City Central High School’s Lakota language class. 

Since entering Susana Gilega’s classroom last fall, Morgan, 17, has learned more Lakota words. 

“I feel I understand something better,” Morgan said. 

Lessons about Lakota culture and traditions that Gilega weaves into each class have given her a better understanding of her Lakota classmates, Morgan said. 

“I’m happier than I was before,” Morgan said. “I’ve really enjoyed it.” 

Daniel Herrald, 17, who grew up in Rapid City, is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. 

“All people should learn their language,” Daniel said. 

Daniel’s dad taught him a few Lakota words, but his command of Lakota and understanding of his Lakota culture is much better since starting the course, he said. 

Daniel can now converse with his dad and his grandparents and is learning more Lakota from them. 

Connecting students such as Daniel and Morgan through the Lakota language is long overdue, according to Gorgie Paulhamus, a guidance counselor at Central who works with American Indian students. 

And preserving the Lakota language is critical, she said. 

Educational research has demonstrated that the more children are involved in their culture and their language, the better they feel about themselves. 

“And they are more successful academically and personally,” Paulhamus said. “Language is first, and ours has always had to be on the back burner.” 

Gilega has taught Lakota at Central for the past four years. The course was formatted to give students one-half credit for a semester of Lakota 1 and another half credit for a semester of Lakota 2. 

Since her arrival, Gilega has worked to build a curriculum for Lakota that meets state standards. 

“It’s been a journey,” she said. “All I had was dictionaries and a rough overdraft.” 

Gilega has encountered objections from people who have varying perspectives on how Lakota should be approached and taught. 

Some believe that Lakota is an oral language and should be kept that way, she said. 

They say that putting Lakota in school or a written form sterilizes the language, Gilega said. 

Gilega is sympathetic with those opinions but said there is something bigger at stake — the preservation of the language. 

“If the kids aren’t getting Lakota language anywhere — and if school is the only place they can get it — so be it,” Gilega said. 

The written form of Lakota was recorded decades ago, and it’s a “purer” form of Lakota than the “slanguage” many Lakota speakers use today, Gilega said. 

“I would rather teach them (students) to speak it and read it and write it correctly in pure form and then show them how it’s slanged down,” Gilega said. 

Words are “slanged down” by dropping syllables, she said. 

For example, in Lakota, “matayan” means ‘I’m fine,” but frequently it’s shortened to “matan.” 

Also, words have evolved to have new meanings such as "zi" (yellow), which is used for “no.” 

Gilega said it is important that her students speak Lakota properly when they speak with their elders. 

“Otherwise, it would be disrespectful,” she said. 

Because Lakota is a communal language, Gilega said, she must include culture in her lessons. 

“You can’t detach Lakota from the culture,” she said. Rather than “me” and “my,” Lakota speak in terms of “we” and “ours.” 

“There are not a lot of ‘I’s,’” she said. 

Beginning next fall, Lakota 1 and Lakota 2 become full-credit yearlong courses, which means Lakota language students can earn two high school world language credits. Those credits will meet the Board of Regents requirements for admission to state universities, according to Pat Peel, director of student achievement and staff development for the Rapid City School District. 

Central will become the only public high school in the nation with accredited Lakota language courses, Gilega said. 

Central’s courses are making a difference for American Indian students, Paulhamus said. 

“It gives them a sense of who they are and makes what they’re about important in their educational day.”

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