Moving America Forward

The Race to Save a Language — and Its People

January 14, 2014
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The Race to Save a Language — and Its People
On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, unemployment is sky high and child care is scarce. But a tall, lanky guy from Philadelphia is bringing hope — in the form of a language-immersion day care. 


As the coach of the Crusaders, the boys’ basketball team at the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, S.D., Matt Rama knew his players were bright, talented and dedicated. But he also knew that as kids growing up on this reservation they struggled with a host of deep-seated issues — from trouble with decision-making on and off the court to confusion about self-identity.

Roughly the size of Connecticut, Pine Ridge is often defined by some hard truths: Alcoholism affecting 8 of 10 households, an average of 17 people living in reservation homes and the lowest life expectancy in the United States. Rama, 41, spent most of his time and energy working on ways to build his players’ self confidence, from including prayer in his pre-game speeches to incorporating Lakota ritual in practices. Then one day — on a whim — he started calling plays in the native language of the Lakota people. The results were astonishing. During the next seven years, the record at Red Cloud was constantly rising, until it reached 133 wins and 40 losses, and Rama’s team averaged 17 wins a season, never again losing more than 25 percent of their games. He coached 41 All-Conference players and four First Team All-State players. Perhaps even more impressive, his team had 16 Academic All-State players and won the State Academic Achievement Team Award every year after he started calling plays in Lakota.

“I had no idea I could make such a difference in the players’ lives and the lives of their families by bringing the language back to them,” Rama says. He watched firsthand as the use of the Lakota language changed the way these young men felt as people. Inspired by this result, Rama decided to go back to teaching elementary school with an emphasis on the Lakota language. He wanted to make sure no other young Lakota person he encountered would miss out on the chance to understand their ancestral language —and the self-identity and worth that comes from that knowledge. In 2012 Rama teamed with his friend and fellow Lakota language booster, Peter Hill, to reach kids even before they entered elementary school. Today he is the co-founder and program director of Lakota Language Immersion Childcare — the only program of its kind in the country.

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Peter Hill moved to Pine Ridge Reservation from the tony North Philadelphia enclave of Chestnut Hill 13 years ago. After college, he got a job teaching social studies at Red Cloud Indian School, where he met Rama. A self-proclaimed perfectionist with a somewhat obsessive nature, Hill fell in love with the Lakota language. Now he is a verifiable Lakota expert — and a Lakota language adjunct at Yale University. As he devoted himself to learning Lakota, Hill began to understand the vast implications its potential extinction had for his new home and neighbors. “The loss of language is comparable to the loss of biodiversity,” he says. “When a language dies, like when a species dies, it takes something valuable with it.”

Fewer than 6,000 people speak Lakota — that’s less than 14 percent of the population of North and South Dakota combined. And those who do speak the language are on borrowed time. The average age of a Lakota speaker is 68, three years older than the average life expectancy on the reservation. Yet according to Wilhelm Meya, the executive director of the Lakota Language Consortium, a nonprofit organization working to revitalize the language, “Lakota is one of a dozen native languages that have a reasonable chance of surviving — and that’s out of 500 vanishing languages.”

Faced with the dismal future of the language he so loved, Hill, 35, decided to do something. In 2012 he left his teaching job to start a day care — in his home. Language immersion programs have cropped up to varying degrees of success at reservations across the country as language has been gaining cultural importance for modern Native Americans. If Hill was going to build a program of his own, he wanted to do it right. And that’s why he decided to start with toddlers and infants rather than the elementary-aged students who already spoke English. By targeting preverbal children, Hill says, “we took somewhat of the easier way out. We picked kids who are so young they are a captive audience.”

Building his immersion program as a day care had immediate benefits for the Pine Ridge community. In a place where the unemployment rate is bleak — 85 percent of adults are out of work — the options for child care are scarce. None of the major reservation employers offer day care; and with teenage birth rates on the reservation nearly four times those of rates in the rest of the state, parents are often forced to stay home rather than look for work. Before Hill came along, the idea of a stable, state-certified day care was a foreign luxury unavailable on the reservation.

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In November 2012, Lakota Language Immersion Childcare opened in the 900-square-foot two-bedroom house Hill shares with his wife and their young daughter — who was one of the first children admitted to the program. Those first months were intense for Hill, who not only hosted the program in his home, but also juggled administrative duties and took care of the children — all of whom could not yet understand what he was saying.

And then there was the fundraising, which Hill describes as a slog. Grant writing became second nature. A campaign on indiegogo.com features a video of Lakota children with a simple plea — to help these kids find a voice they have lost — and helped raise $13,000, which was enough to get the day care up and running and to finance it for six months. Not much, but it was a start.

“There were some really dark stretches,” Hill says. “I felt that the kids and their families were depending on this program, that we had made a pledge to see this program through, and failure just wasn’t an option. More often than not, I would go to bed at night convinced that I would just have to throw the towel in and shut the program down, but then the next day I would invariably get up and keep going.”

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There were other problems. Severe blizzards and torrential rain in the fall flooded a temporary building the day care moved to, forcing the program back into Hill’s house —and this time he had a newborn at home. But then Hill met Leonard Little Finger, an Oglala Lakota elder, who had an empty building that was originally intended to house a language program but it never opened because of funding issues. Hill had an exciting new immersion program with no home and Little Finger had the home with no program. The timing was — finally — perfect; Hill’s program was in the new space by the end of the week.

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Today a sign on the door of the Lakota Language Immersion Childcare reads: “Please no English.” The site is known as a “language nest,” meaning that English is strictly forbidden during hours of operation. All phone conversations and chats with parents are conducted outside of the day care. Children are even read to in Lakota. Hill has inadvertently built the world’s largest library of Lakota children’s books, with more than 200 translated works. It’s a monk’s tedious work: He translates, types the Lakota words on his computer, cuts the lines out and then tapes them into the pages.

“Lakota is a very beautiful language. It is lyrical and expressive and provides speakers a real connection with each other because it’s focused on kinship and the natural world in a way that isn’t available in English,” says Meya, of the Lakota Language Consortium. “We want to make sure these young people aren’t questioning who they are down the road. Once you have the language, you have the culture. You can always do the dance, song, history or prayer. But first you need to have the language.”

For Tama l’atala, whose 2-year-old son Shai Diem attends the program, the reality of losing his culture is all too real. Half Samoan and half Lakota, Tama grew up with Samoan as his first language. After moving to the mainland, he lost that language — and with it his identity. “I didn’t know who to identify with. A Polynesian in the middle of the Midwest is rare,” he says. “I knew I was Samoan, but I didn’t know what that meant.” L’atala is making sure his son doesn’t have the same experience by sending him to the immersion program and learning the Lakota language himself so that they can share it together.

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When Shai, impatient to leave the house one morning, commanded his dad to “come on!” in Lakota, L’atala felt not only proud but also deeply connected to his roots. He points to the Native American prophecy that says that seven generations — or about 140 years — ahead, indigenous children will inherit and reclaim the earth. “That moment made me feel like I was a big part of that,” he says. “I felt really connected to my Lakota roots.”

In its new location for just over three months, Lakota Language Immersion Childcare has finally hit its stride. Hill says his students are now beginning to speak the language. And their parents are starting to express interest in Lakota, too. Though the tangibles may be small — a child speaking a word here and there, a mother singing a Lakota lullaby to her daughter at bedtime — the long-term cultural benefits are immense. As Hill constantly says, immersion is not just about teaching the language. “The language is the vehicle for, and the most important byproduct of, the education. The fact that they have learned Lakota is not the ends, it is just the beginning.”

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