LSI Impressions

UC-Berkeley student Simon Gertler had the summer of his life as an intern at the Lakota Summer Institute this year.  Simon’s environmental science studies turned into an enthusiasm for current issues in Native American cultures after one of his instructors suggested he contact LLC about coming out to help with LSI.

Simon first helped build the 2013 LSI web site, and then he dove into the realities of the Institute, helping with registration, serving meals and coffee, and the hundreds of little administrative tasks that put LSI together. Simon proved he is good at establishing relationships – always asking how he could help, talking to people and making solid friendships. Let Simon tell you just what this summer meant to him.

It’s hard for me to explain to people why my internship at the 2013 LSI was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. Somehow “summer school in North Dakota” doesn’t exactly scream excitement, but there are so many things that made it the best summer ever.  The train ride from California, the bike ride from Minot, living for three weeks in the Prairie Knights Casino with its all-you-can-eat buffet, watching the sunset over the endless green prairie every night, seeing my first herd of buffalo, sitting through a sweat lodge, experiencing a powwow and the famous Lakota fry bread, hearing traditional Lakota drum songs, swimming in the Missouri river, erecting a buffalo hide tipi, among a list of many more, are some of the things I can use to support my case.

But what really made my experience were the people I met.  I could write novels about every character that I had the pleasure of getting to know, from Tiorahkwathe, the Mohawk elder, to John “Tȟáȟča” Vander Veer from Illinois.  Not only did each one touch me through their kindness and wisdom, but their passion and determination for the language created an electric atmosphere of inspiration and excitement that pervaded the classrooms at Sitting Bull College.  To attempt to provide a taste of this atmosphere, I will describe a few of the characters who reminded me every day that I was involved in something truly special.

I first met Wakinyan when I sat down at his table at the Prairie Knights Buffet. I normally wouldn’t sit down so readily next to a guy twice my size, with a ponytail and a t-shirt whose cut off sleeves displayed a fierce buffalo tattoo on his left bicep. However, he was sitting with two young ladies I had intended to share my meal with.

Sure, part of what impressed me so much about his interest in the language was that I didn’t expect it to come out of a guy that looked so tough. Regardless of my preconceptions, his commitment to the language is admirable.  Wakinyan can’t be much older than me, and is a single father of three.  He came to the LSI in preparation for his new job as a Lakota language teacher at a South Dakota high school.

Wakinyan’s passion for the language identified itself most strongly when he talked about the frustration he encounters while learning Lakota, when some elder fluent speakers accuse him of misusing the gender system and “speaking like a woman.”  Near the end of the program when his frustration had come to a climax, he drove to Bismarck to call his family and consult his dads about their use of the gender system. By “dads” he was referring to his dad, uncles, and father figures that in Lakota all share the same term.

I was moved by his investment in the language and the way it connected him to his family. Not only had his studies through the LSI directed him towards a positive career as a teacher, but through the language he had accessed another way to connect to his atkúku (father and paternal uncle).

Thipiwizin is a young Lakota woman who learned Lakota as a second language through some of the LSI and LLC’s programs.  She now teaches pre-school at the new immersion nest at Sitting Bull College, where she has the challenge of using only Lakota with her students—a tough task when she is still a student of the language herself.  In response to criticism by some Lakota speakers of the revitalization efforts she declared, “It’s my language too and I am going to learn it whether they like it or not.” That gave me goosebumps.  She and young people like her are pioneering the movement to reclaim a language that, against all odds, could not be destroyed.

I could describe countless more examples, like Philomine Lakota, an elder from Pine Ridge who has so much wisdom to share; the humility she brings to the classroom is humbling.  She proves her desire to save and spread her language through the eagerness with which she engages in the teaching methods classes and the patience with which she teaches.

And there is Duta, a young man from Standing Rock who recently graduated from Cornell and now co-runs a charter school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he is developing the Lakota language program.  Or there is Laura, a young Lakota woman who is a beautician in Rapid City and travelled with her young daughter up to Sitting Bull for the LSI to continue her studies in the language and share it with her daughter. Uŋčí (Grandmother) Delores, a Lakota elder, swears as she gets older that every year is her last at the LSI, but she comes back each summer to devote three weeks to a vision that she so firmly believes in—the salvation of her language.

The list goes on, but I hope that these snippets of my experience can share some of the light that shined from Standing Rock this June. The LSI was not without kinks or disagreement, but the passion and progress that blossomed during the three weeks is undeniable and left me with a sense of hope and inspiration.  I would not have traded the experience to be anywhere else this summer, whether camping or getting paid somewhere, because no matter how big my paycheck, I wouldn’t have left as rich as I did from the LSI.