Children learning Lakota language at Wakanyeja Tokeyachi immersion school run by REDCO’s sister organization Sicangu Community Development Corporation for elementary students on the Rosebud Reservation. (Source: Sicangu CDC)

There are fewer than 500 fluent Lakota language speakers among the Sicangu Lakota Oyate (Rosebud Sioux Tribe), so a tribal entity is trying to attract adults to language preservation by paying them to study and become conversational or fluent in the Indigenous language. 

“Native language revitalization is something that not only us but many indigenous nations are concerned about,” said Wizipan Little Elk, CEO of Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO). “Here in Rosebud, we’re kind of at a point of crisis.”

There are 34,000 citizens of the Rosebud Nation, he noted, and of those citizens, about 550 speakers were initially identified. 

However, as of September 2021, that number is down to around 450 speakers. 

“As of the last several years, we’ve lost nearly 100 speakers,” he added. “And of those fluent speakers, many of them are 60 and above and we have just a few speakers under the age of 30 and a few under 18, so we are really at kind of a crisis point. It’s time to take action: to be bold, to try new ideas.”

That’s where Lakolya Waoniya, which translates roughly to “Breathing Life into the Lakota Language,” comes in. 

Little Elk said a lot of people want to learn the language but have barriers. The program seeks to remove some, if not all, of them.  

“To learn a language you have to be able to have the time and energy and resources to put a significant amount of rigor into the learning process and have the time to do it,” he said. “And it’s really not reasonable to expect full-time working mothers and fathers to just learn the language in their spare time.”  

Little Elk said that the idea is essentially to pay people a full-time salary for a full-time job, which is learning the language. The program is designed to last for about three years. 

Participants will receive a full salary – above minimum wage – along with benefits to study the language at an intensive scale on the reservation, based in South Dakota. 

The program is just one way of redefining the meaning of wealth and how it is earned. Many people think of wealth in terms of money, but for Indigenous people, Little Elk said, culture and cultural perpetuity are important. 

“This is really about redefining wealth and investing in our own wealth,” he said, noting the abundance of what was taken from the Lakota people. For example, he noted the significant decrease in buffalo in the Great Plains and the monetary loss it has caused Indigenous communities. For every $1 of white wealth in the U.S., he noted, there are 8 cents for Native American wealth.  

He also noted the practice of eradicating Native languages that took place up until a few decades ago. 

“That’s part of the reason why we have to make this kind of investment in our cultural perpetuity,” he added. 

Details and logistics surrounding the program are still being finalized. The plan is to start the program in the spring and the Tribe is currently looking to hire a program coordinator to work with a teacher of teachers to create the program and work with the community for selection criteria for the seven individuals in the first cohort, Little Elk said. 

“We’ve heard of other similar type programs but never really went and visited or studied, so we kind of came to this independently but knowing we may not be the first to do it,” he said. 

The Cherokee Nation, for example, has been offering the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program for several years. Participants are paid $10 per hour to study the language for 40 hours per week. 

Little Elk said that one challenge for the Lakota language program will be creating a program that creates conversational speakers, not academics. He said what they hope for is that participants use the language in everyday contexts. 

“The challenges are concepts and idioms and ways of thinking that don’t translate to English. One of the criticisms is that they’re using Lakota words but they are actually talking English,” he said. “So they are taking English words and concepts and trying to translate them into Lakota, when it just doesn’t work that way. 

For Little Elk, language revitalization is just one component of a broader movement to keep Indigenous culture alive and thriving. 

“This is just one part of an Indigenous language and cultural revitalization movement. We aren’t doing this in isolation,” he said.