Lakota speakers looking to start immersion day care

South Dakota: Tama I’atala doesn’t want his children to feel as disconnected from their Lakota heritage as he does from his Samoan culture.

I’atala, who is part Lakota and livs on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, has a solution: have his children, including his 17-month-old son, learn the language.

“I don’t want my kids to grow up without that sense of pride of who they are,” said I’atala, 36.

I’atala is part of a small group of people on the reservation trying to start a Lakota language-immersion day care for infants in hopes of increasing the number of people fluent in the language and, ultimately, strengthening the Lakota culture.

There are fewer than 6,000 Lakota speakers – less than 14 percent of the Lakota population in North Dakota and South Dakota, and the average age of a Lakota speaker is 60.

Several other efforts are under way to preserve the Lakota language, but the day care is unique because the children would be taught Lakota as the primary language. The hope is the children would feed into Lakota-first preschools and elementary schools.

“We think really the best way to approach immersion from Step 1 is to start with kids who are preverbal infants and can therefore learn Lakota as a first language,” Peter Hill said. Hill, originally from Philadelphia, moved to the reservation several years ago and learned Lakota. He has taught it at several area schools – and to his 2-year-old daughter.

“It seems that kids really see their first language as their default language, their home-base language. Even in a really successful immersion program where kids can become successful, it never quite has that centrality to them,” he said.

But Hill and the other day care supporters are having trouble finding between $76,000 and $108,000 in grants and resources necessary to pay the salaries of two full-time Lakota-speaking caregivers, an administrator and miscellaneous expenses. With the economy still in recovery mode, many organizations are cutting back or not awarding new grants, Hill said.

On the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border, a similar effort is under way. The Standing Sioux Rock Tribe received grants from the Administration of Native Americans to offer what is called an immersion nest. As many as 10 3-year-olds will take part in the program starting in September, said project director Sacheen Whitetail Cross.

One of the biggest hurdles in Lakota language immersion is finding qualified teachers, said Wilhelm K. Meya, executive director of the Lakota Language Consortium, a nonprofit organization trying to preserve and revitalize the language.

Immersion teachers are not only required to be fluent in the language but must also be able to convey their understanding and mastery of the language to students, he said.

The Lakota Language Education Action Program is trying to increase the number of teachers. It offers tuition, room and board to qualified language students at the University of South Dakota or Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock reservation in Fort Yates, N.D.

Once completed, students are required to teach Lakota in a classroom for the same amount of time they received funding.

I’atala, who is currently enrolled in the LLEAP program at the University of South Dakota, said language efforts are key to keeping the Lakota culture strong.

“I think, personally, it starts with the language,” he said.