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Rosebud's indigenous language school sees enrollment jump in fourth year
‘The school that I needed': Teachers on the Rosebud Reservation create model for indigenous language immersion
With the smell of burning sage in the air, students at Wakanyeja Tokeyahci Wounspe Ti gather around the drum for their morning song. For these students, practicing Lakota traditions and speaking their ancestral language is the norm. Whether they know it or not, they are at the forefront of a growing movement to revitalize indigenous languages.
“I wanted to create the school that I needed when I was a student,” said Sage Fast Dog, the school’s founder and director. “I wanted a school that recognized me as Lakota and didn’t see my skin color as a roadblock to my intelligence. We’ve worked really hard to create that space for these Wakanyeja, and it’s good medicine for all of us.”
Now beginning its fourth year, Wakanyeja Tokeyahci Wounspe Ti (Children First Learning Center) has over 30 students in kindergarten through third grade who are taught primarily in Lakota.
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The school is guided by four pillars: language fluency, strengthening Indigenous identity, holistic wellness, and academic excellence. Fast Dog pointed out the dramatic difference between Lakota students’ experiences in public schools and the new immersion program.
“When I was in school, it wasn’t a very healing place. There wasn’t a focus on the Lakota language and it wasn’t student-centered. If we didn’t read something correctly, we got slapped on the hand,” he said. “It didn’t help me read better but that is what the educational system allowed at that time.”
Prior to the school’s opening in 2020, Fast Dog spent years planning every detail of the school’s operational plan. He is well-aware that there are only a handful of Lakota speakers under the age of 30, and felt the urgency to start a school that would create lifelong language learners. He said the success of this school will help preserve the Lakota language and culture for generations.
Beyond teaching students how to speak Lakota, the students also learn their history and take pride in their culture.
“If we can get our kids to be secure in who they are when they come in the door, and we help with their coping skills, we help them with their full emotional development, then they have a greater chance of graduating from high school and being career ready,” Fast Dog said. He added that holistic wellness is the key to success academically and in life.
Students aren’t the only ones on a learning journey. Teachers in the immersion program learn alongside the students with fluent speakers as mentors and monitors in the classrooms. Carm Shouldis is a teacher at the school and Leland Little Dog works with her in the immersion classes.
Shouldis developed a love for teaching and the language through her work in the program.
“I never wanted to be a teacher just because I have had bad experiences as a kid,” she said. “I remember in college being asked to take a language class and I was totally against it because I didn't see the value at the time. It wasn't until my friends started taking the Lakota language class and then I learned more about the culture at college where I realized, ‘Oh, wow, this is who I am.’”
She said she spent two years with Teach for America in a public school and that experience only made her more interested in working with children in the immersion program.
Since she wasn’t fluent in Lakota yet, she started working with Little Dog to prepare her lessons in Lakota.
“I would write lessons in English on the right side of the paper. And then Leland would write on the left side of the paper, all in Lakota. And then I would read off of my paper, and I'd have the English there so I could remember,” she said. ”Eventually, I didn't need to use the paper anymore. And then even in small talk, I was able to speak more with Leland and I think that's actually what helped me become conversational.”
Little Dog grew up speaking Lakota and is excited to work in a program that promotes the language with young students.
“Our language has been taught for 40 years without success, because it was just about nouns and names and colors and the lessons weren't conversational,” Little Dog said. “So here we're teaching immersive, conversational Lakota, which is very different.”
Little Dog said many people assume that, because the teachers speak Lakota so well, they have been learning the language for years, but that’s not the case.
“That is what is so unique about this school. Some of the staff have only been learning for two or three years” he said. “But they're still able to teach very well so I think that's a really impressive aspect of the school.”
Brian Dillon who has two grandchildren in the immersion school said he can see a big difference between this school and public schools.
“The staff members are really there for the kids. You can tell,” he said. “You can tell that they're not just there for a paycheck. I take my grandson to school, and when he gets there in the morning, they're singing a song. They're smudging to have a good day. They are learning a different form of respect.”