Our Role and Impact

The Lakota Language Consortium

Established as an educational non-profit comprised of Lakota Elders and Native leaders in 2004, the Lakota Language Consortium achieves its mission by providing materials, training, and support for Lakota students and teachers in Lakota country. Making high-quality Lakota language media available to schools and colleges so they can create educational experiences and materials for future generations.

The Vision

LLC envisions a day when the Lakota language is once again spoken in every Lakota household- where every Lakota parent has the resources and opportunity to speak Lakota daily-  where Lakota people are developing and moving forward with Lakȟótiyapi and growing the language in new and profound ways. 

The Mission

LLC’s mission is to create innovative educational resources and events that encourage fluency in Lakȟótiyapi for this and future generations.   Since 2004, directed by its Lakota-led board and working closely with Tribal community leaders – LLC has worked to expand Lakota language learning and provide the Lakota youth with materials and resources to be successful speakers of the language.

LLC has developed over 100 important Lakota language materials including: dictionaries, a grammar, textbooks, children’s books, cartoons, mobile apps, Lakota keyboards,  and an e-Learning platform.

View the catalog of materials here.

In addition,  events such as Language Weekends and Summer Institutes – have been key in connecting new adult learners with Native speakers. Creating a space where all can gather and rapidly learn concepts and build vocabulary has been instrumental in the growth of these programs.

Learn more about Language weekends here.

Our Role

LLC works closely with educational and Tribal leaders to identify gaps in curriculum and program needs-  and other ways to support the Lakȟótiyapi movement.

How We Serve

Finding Solutions

Serving Lakota schools and adult learners in the community is our primary goal.


Since 2004, LLC has been a leader in Lakota language revitalization. As an organization, we are proud to have developed the first-ever professionally designed Lakota language materials for school children. Join the 53 schools across North and South Dakota participating in this work. Help us expand the Vision and Mission that has already positively impacted over 20,000 Lakota children.

Please reach out to us here. 
If you’d like to support these programs

The Postive Impact Being Made

History Of the Lakota Language Consortium

The Lakota Language Consortium began in 2002 to address concerns of Lakota language speakers and teachers concerned about the lack of language teaching happening in South Dakota. Community leaders Leonard Little Finger and Robert Two Crow, and others called on the Oglala National Education Coalition to create a solution to address language loss on Pine Ridge and surrounding areas.

The result was a cooperative plan called the Lakota Language Consortium that would partner 18 schools with Indiana University to develop a curriculum. This effort was supported by the Oglala Sioux Tribe.  Unfortunately, the original project never fully materialized. To continue the idea, Leonard Little Finger joined with Johnson Holy Rock, Richard Broken Nose, Wil Meya, Jan Ullrich, and David Rood to form a nonprofit organization that would develop curriculum and resources as the original plan entailed.

By the end of 2004, the organization had developed the Level 1 Textbook and had begun working with three schools on Pine Ridge. By 2005, it had finished the Level 2 Textbook and had expanded the work to schools across Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River. Since then, there have been many milestones in the effort.

Here are the highlights:
• 1st Summer Institute in 2007
• New Lakota Dictionary in 2008
• Level 3 Textbook in 2010
• Lakota Berenstain Bear Project in 2011
• Level 4 Textbook in 2012
• Level 5 Textbook 2014
• Rising Voices documentary in 2015
• Lakota Grammar Handbook in 2016
• Owóksape language app and Virtual Language Institutes in 2020

and many more!

2008 LLC Board

Learn More About Our

Lakota-led Board Of Directors 
Materials In The Bookstore
Learning Opportunities
View Upcoming Live Events 

Awards & Honors

Celebrating The Work – Awards & Honors

While LLC remains focused on preventing Language Loss it’s also important to acknowledge the milestones along this journey. Below you will find a timeline of accomplishments that LLC has achieved since its inception in 2004. We’ve also included awards, honors, and press reviews of the work that is being done.

The Consortium’s achievements include:

  • Publication of 5 installments of K-16 Textbooks, audio CDs, teacher training, teaching materials, and assessment testing. LLC’s sequenced language education materials impact over 20,000 students and 300 teachers in 53 schools.
  • Over 100 published titles in Lakota
  • Over 100,000 piece of material distributed
  • Over $1 million worth of materials donated
  • Robust materials at the LLC Bookstore
  • 2 Lakota Summer Institutes
  • Many FREE online language resources
Year Partnerships Summer Institutes Major Products and Publications Other Activities
2004 Oglala Sioux Tribe Lakota Level 1 Textbook & Audio CD

2 Children’s Books: Prairie Dog Goes to School & The Buffalo and the Boat

2005 Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe

Rosebud Sioux Tribe

Lakota Level 2 Textbook & Audio CD
2006 Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Ken Hale Prize for Grassroots Linguistic Preservation & Revitalization Work
2007 Lakota Summer Institute (1st Annual) Lakota Assessment Testing

Lakota Font Bundle CD

Animated Film: The Legend of the End of the World

2008 Lakota Summer Institute (2nd Annual) New Lakota Dictionary, 1st Edition

New Lakota Dictionary Online

Lakota Learner’s Forum

2009 Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Lakota Summer Institute (3rd Annual) Lakota Vol. 1 Children’s Song CD Bronze Medal: Independent Publishers Association for Excellence in Reference Publishing for New Lakota Dictionary
2010 Lakota Summer Institute (4thAnnual) Lakota Level 3 Textbook & Audio CD
2011 Lakota Summer Institute (5th Annual) Lakota Berenstain Bears 20-Episode Cartoons

Lakota Language Education Action Program (LLEAP)

New Lakota Dictionary, 2nd Edition

Rising Voices Development and Pre-Production
2012 Lakota Summer Institute (6th Annual) Lakota Level 4 Textbook & Audio CD

Lakota Vol. 2 Children’s Song CD

Lakota Play: Iktomi’s Raccoon Hat

Rising Voices Principal Photography
2013 TLC & Crow Nation Lakota Summer Institute (7th Annual) Siouan-Caddoan Linguistic Conference
Rising Voices Principal Photography continues
2014 Lakota Summer Institute (8th Annual) Lakota Level 5 Textbook & Audio CD

Ten-CD Lakota Audio Series for conversational Lakota

Lakota Play: Iktomi’s New Wife

Lakota Flute Book

New Lakota Dictionary App

Rising Voices Principal Photography continues

Printing/Binding Equipment builds print-on-demand capacity

2015 Lakota Summer Institute (9th Annual) Rising Voices Premiere on American Public Television (865 broadcasts nationwide)

Lakota Vocab Builder App

Lakota Mobile Keyboard

Lakota Alphabet Coloring Book

2016 Lakota Summer Institute (10th Annual) Lakota Grammar Handbook

1 Lakota Children’s Book: Do You Like to Dance?

2017 Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Lakota Summer Institute (11th Annual) 5 Lakota Children’s Books: The Fox Who Saw His Own Shadow, Froggy, I Saw a Skunk!, Time to Eat!, & The Thunderbeings

Lakota Media Player App

Woman Walks Ahead (consulting)
2018 Oglala Sioux Tribe
University of North Dakota
Oglala Lakota College
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe
Lakota Summer Institute North (1st Annual)

Lakota Summer Institute South (12th Annual)

Lakota Language Academy

Lakota Language Weekends

Lakota Level 4 Textbook (2nd Ed.)

Lakota Grammar Handbook (2nd Ed.)

Lakota Puzzle Book Vol. 1: Crossword and Wordsearch

Traditional Lakota Songs

New Lakota Dictionary Pro App


University of North Dakota Lakota Education Program

LOWI Lakota Immersion School

StoryCorps at Lakota Summer Institute North
2019 University of North Dakota
Oglala Lakota College
Lakota Language Academy (2nd Annual)
Lakota Summer Institute North (2nd Annual)
Lakota Summer Institute South (13th Annual)
Lakota Language Weekends
Lakota Turtle Goes To War Picture Book

Lakota Educational Video Series: Chief Bald Eagle Narrative, Johnson Holy Rock Narrative, New Lakota Dictionary.

Lakota Owoksape 1.4.0

2020 University of North Dakota
Oglala Lakota College
Rosebud Sioux Tribe
Virtual Lakota Language Academy (3rd Annual)
Virtual Lakota Summer Institute North (3rd Annual)
Virtual Lakota Summer Institute South (14th Annual)
Owoksape Teacher Portal

Lakota Meadowlark and the Rattlesnake

The project includes a one-hour documentary film that will be shown nationally on public television in the fall of 2015. The film is serious but unconventional, at times describing life on the reservation from the Lakota perspective. Woven through the documentary are sections of four short films by Lakota filmmakers made especially for inclusion in Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi.  The film is a portrait of a culture, an unflinching look at the language loss and a probing analysis of the revitalization efforts that have brought hope to the Native speakers on the Lakota reservations of North and South Dakota.

Click here to view the documentary & awards

New Lakota Dictionary Takes Bronze

In June 2009, the Lakota Language Consortium’s (LLC) New Lakota Dictionary received the Bronze medal in the “Reference” category of the 13th Annual Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPY) competition. The competition, hosted by the Independent Book Publishers Association, recognizes excellence in independent publishing. “This is great news,” said Wil Meya, Executive Director of the LLC. “There were more than 3,380 entrees in 65 National categories overall and to receive the 2009 IPPY award is certainly an honor. It reflects well on the quality of the Dictionary and the hard work by the editor and all the contributor.” Other presses honored included Yale University Press which led the medal count with five, and Indiana University Press and Kent State University Press followed with four and three medals.

Three anonymous judges vetted the New Lakota Dictionary. Competition judges hold various roles within the book community: newspaper reviewers, librarians, bookstore owners and buyers, designers and other publishing professionals. Below are the written comments from one of the judges.

“This was the first book I pulled out of the box for review. My immediate reaction was one of appreciation, as I’ve been asked for a Lakota dictionary at the reference desk.” “Also, having recently spent time watching / reviewing Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and recently returning from a trip to South Dakota, I have a re-heightened awareness of the importance of maintaining native language and culture and of resources that document these. ” “The addition of the grammar usage section to the dictionary makes this resource even more invaluable. This resources is a must have for linguistics programs, libraries, as well as for larger public libraries and Native American culture museum libraries. Thank you for this resource. ” The New Lakota Dictionary represents a major step in standardizing Lakota writing and provides Lakota-English / English Lakota sections and incorporates the Dakota dialects of Yankton-Yanktonai & Santee-Sisseton.

The Dictionary contains 20,000 definitions, including over 6,000 words that have never appeared in a dictionary, and a 90-page section on grammar. The 3,000 “most important” words are highlighted. Over 300 native speakers served as consultants to ensure that the bonds between language and culture come alive in the New Lakota Dictionary’s 43,000 example sentences and collocations. You can learn more about the dictionary at the LLC store.

The publication of the first edition of the New Lakota Dictionary in 2008 was an historic event for the tribe and for LLC. Read about the celebration for NLD contributor’s in the Lakota Country Times.

RAPID CITY – “Wow”, said Johnson Holy Rock, an elder, past tribal president and contributor to the New Lakota Dictionary, “it is finally done, it is here, fantastic.”

After more than 20 years of work and the contributions of over 300 Lakota and Dakota speakers, the New Lakota Dictionary has been published and is being distributed throughout Lakota country and beyond. As a formal book release and for the many people who contributed, who read and proof read and offered valuable insight into a new dictionary, there will be a reception for them and open to the public at Prairie Edge in Rapid City, Friday, July 18 at 3 p.m..

“The new Lakota Dictionary is a breakthrough in contemporary Native American language studies,” said Bill Powers, author of Sacred Language: The Nature of Supernatural Discourse in Lakota, “this publication revolutionizes what we understand about the historical development of Lakota and Dakota dialects while clarifying many problems found in earlier lexical works; this is much needed and innovative.”

The 1,112 page book features a 90 page Lakota grammar section, background material on the Lakota language and history of Lakota lexicography and includes 20,000 words with over 40,000 example sentences, usage notes and collocations with special marks denoting the 1,000 most important and most used Lakota words and the next 2,000 important and used words.

The book is actually published by the Lakota Language Consortium, a non profit located in Indiana and dedicated to the re-vitalization of the Lakota language through the publication of educational materials, teacher training and other educational services. A number of nonprofits and tribal entities helped pay for the actual printing. It is available at Prairie Edge in Rapid City, any national bookseller, wholesale from Baker and Taylor or online at www.lakhota.org.

The New Lakota Dictionary had its beginning back in the 1800s and has used all of the publications that have been published in the 19th and 20th centuries as a resource; Jan Ullrich started gathering words and expressions in the mid 1980’s and started entering both those words and the historical publications into a data base. Jan lived with families in Indian Country in 1992 and 1993 working with Native speakers to check data and add new material.

Missionary brothers Samuel and Gideon Pond were the first to give the Dakota dialect written form as they translated biblical texts into Dakota in the 1830s. Stephen Riggs and Dr. Thomas Williamson later followed up on their work with Grammar and Dictionary of the Dakota Language in 1852. An expanded version of the dictionary was published in 1892 as Dakota-English Dictionary. John P. Williamson, Williamson’s son, published an English-Dakota Dictionary. In 1904, Rev. E.D. Perrig completed a typescript “An English-Lakota Dictionary.

Playing a major role in the history and development Lakota linguistics and lexicography, Ella Deloria, in collaboration with Franz Boas, published Grammar of the Lakota in 1941 and her work provided the foundation of Rood and Taylor’s educational materials out of the University of Colorado.

Fr. Eugene Buechel spent most of his life from 1902 to 1954 on Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations learning the language and gathering words and meanings, as many as 24,000. He passed away in 1954 and Fr. Paul Manhart published Buechel’s work in 1970 as A Dictionary of the Teton Dakota Sioux language. Buechel had published a Bible History in the Language of the Sioux Teton Indians in 1924.

“Rudy Fire Thunder in 1992 and John Around Him in 1993 helped provide word meanings and example sentences and broader contexts for the word usage,” said Ullrich, “over the years so many people helped with the dictionary, probably over 300 speakers.”

According to Ullrich, some of the contributors who helped preserve the language for generations to come included Calvin Jumping Bull, Johnson Holy Rock, Ben Black Bear Jr., Delores Taken Alive, Darlene Last Horse, Wilmer Mesteth, Kayo Bad Heart Bull, David West, Etta Little Thunder, Mel and Everett Lone Hill, Stanley and Arvol Looking Horse and Robert Two Crow.

Last month a summer language institute was held in Ft. Yates at Sitting Bull College for Lakota language teachers. Some of the comments made by the students included, “The standardization of the writing of Lakota words is absolutely critical to the revival, survival and maintenance of a language such as Lakota; both teachers, students and the public can benefit from this Lakota dictionary.

Although I am a fluent speaker, I feel I do not know everything I should about the language before our elders leave us; the dictionary holds much wisdom from our elders; there is a wealth of information in the dictionary to learn about and to teach our students. It is a valuable teaching tool and I hope that it will be made available to all of the Oyate who truly want to learn this beautiful language.”

There are still so many questions swirling around the language, how do we build a national language? What is the best way to teach the language?

What is the best orthography? Are second language learners in the best position to teach the language? How is it that it is two non-Indians coordinating the project? What is the best way to get the next generation to take ownership of the language?

“Using Lakota honors the memory of our ancestors and if we hold onto our language, we will know who we are and we will know where we are going in the future,” said Johnson Holy Rock, Ben Black Bear Jr, and Delores Taken Alive in the opening words of the new dictionary, “with this dictionary the next generation can carry the language on, we know that our children and grandchildren can learn Lakota language from it-if you are proud to be Lakota, you should also be proud to speak the language and learn it properly. With this dictionary, we have come full circle and where we can once again stand as a people.”

In June of 2013, the New Lakota Audio Dictionary recording got underway. This news coverage documenting the process. 

It’s important that we remember those that have contributed to preserving the language. This article honored the legacy of Albert White Hat when he walked on in 2013.

Albert White Hat Preserver Of Lakota Language Dies at 74 – Washinton Post

Lakota Language Loses Fluent Speaker – Indian Country Today

Published January, 31, 2012
One of the most fluent Lakota language speakers, Native American elder Johnson Holy Rock, recently walked on.

The Lakota language has lost one of its most fluent speakers. Johnson Holy Rock, of Wakpamni, South Dakota, walked on January 21 at the age of 93.

Holy Rock was one of the founders of the Lakota Language Consortium. He served on its board of directors from 2004 to 2008.

“His leadership regarding the Lakota language was very influential as he was one of the most fluent Lakota speakers surviving into the 21st century,” says an entry about Holy Rock posted on LakotaDictionary.org. “His decisions and recommendations significantly shaped the Lakota Language Consortium’s policies, products and services. Johnson strongly believed in the need for a standardized spelling system and curriculum, and always promoted it.”

Johnson recorded his life story in Lakota. In it he talks about Lakota being his first language and how he didn’t go to school until he was 8. He spoke English fluently by then though. He was taught by older sisters.

“His language skills and eloquence in both Lakota and English showed that he was a man of high intelligence and sophistication,” says LakotaDictionary.org.

Holy Rock was also a World War II veteran and served as the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe from 1966 to 1968. Before that time he met U.S. President John F. Kennedy in the White House to try and improve housing on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The website GoNativeAmerica.com calls Holy Rock “one of the most respected elders in Indian country.” It also says that his grandfathers, Holy Bald Eagle and Holy Bull, traveled with Crazy Horse and that his father was at Little Bighorn.

“Johnson’s father, Jonas, was 11 years old when George A. Custer and the 7th Cavalry attacked the Lakota-Cheyenne encampment at the Little Bighorn.”

The Rapid City Journal recently posted a 2001 interview in which Holy Rock talks about his father, who was at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Listen here.

Holy Rock was recorded telling his life story in Lakota in 2005. Listen here.

Holy Rock also took part in a 90-minute documentary about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “A Thunder-Being Nation” tells the story of the Lakota from their origin to where they are now. It was shot over 11 years from Pine Ridge and includes topics like Wounded Knee, boarding schools, the Gold Rush, forced sterilization, education, and racism. A clip about poor housing conditions can be seen below:

Lakota: The Revitalization of Language and the Persistence of Spirit

Published October 8, 2012

Author Truthout

A child watches a Color Guard Veteran’s Pow Wow at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (Photo: Hamner_Fotos)

New programs to teach and restore the lost language and cultural heritage of the Lakota Sioux offers hope for the children who live on reservations where dire poverty, suicide, unemployment and substance abuse have become a way of life.

For more than a century the Lakota language endured a deliberate and systematic attempt to eradicate it.

As a tool of colonization, the killing of language was a means of severing indigenous people’s ties to their culture, history and spirituality.

General Richard Henry Pratt in 1878 formed the first of many Indian boarding schools designed to “elevate” the Lakota to white culture. According to the Amnesty International article titled “Soul Wound: The Legacy of Native American Schools,” more than 100,000 Native Americans were “forced by the US government to attend Christian schools.”

The system, which began with President Ulysses Grant’s 1869 “peace policy,” continued well into the 20th century. Church officials, missionaries and local authorities took children as young as age 5 from their parents and shipped them off to Christian boarding schools. They were separated from their families most of the year, sometimes without a single family visit. Parents caught trying to hide their children lost food rations.

At the schools, native children were forced to worship as Christians. Their hair was cut, traditional clothing was banned and, according to “Soul Wound,” the elimination of native languages – considered an obstacle to the “acculturation” process – was a top priority. Teachers devised an extensive repertoire of punishments for uncooperative children, which included mouths being “scrubbed with lye and chlorine.”

The horror of the boarding school system actually went much further. In Canada, as Amnesty International explains, “a 2001 report by the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada documents the responsibility of the Roman Catholic Church, the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada and the federal government in the deaths of more than 50,000 native children in the Canadian residential school system.

The report explains how “church officials killed children by beating, poisoning, electric shock, starvation, prolonged exposure to sub-zero cold while naked, as well as medical experimentation, including the removal of organs and radiation exposure.

In 1928 Alberta passed legislation allowing school officials to forcibly sterilize native girls; British Columbia followed suit in 1933. There is no accurate record of forced sterilizations because hospital staff destroyed records in 1995 after police launched an investigation. But according to the testimony of a nurse in Alberta, doctors sterilized entire groups of native children when they reached puberty. The report also says that Canadian clergy, police and business and government officials “rented out” children from residential schools to pedophile rings.”

These methods of dehumanization are contributing factors to the intergenerational or historical trauma still affecting the Lakota Nation today.

There are no children on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota who are fluent speakers of the Lakota language.

Speaking About the Future

Thipiziwin Young is one of a group of Lakota who are now determined to change that.

Young, a Lakota second-language learner and Lakota language activities instructor, is working with a team in Standing Rock’s very first Lakota language-immersion classroom. The class consists of 12 preschool-age students, two language activities instructors and a first-language-fluent speaker. The class is held at Sitting Bull College.

The program is made possible under a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Native Americans. Students are as young as 3 years old. Everything, including all learning materials, is presented in the Lakota language. No English is permitted to be spoken in the room. The goal is to develop first-language acquisition skills that allow children to become natural thinkers, singers and speakers of Lakota in a fluid and imaginative way.

“It’s a reality that’s hard to swallow for our people,” Young told Truthout, about the dearth of Lakota-fluent children on Standing Rock. “There are some children on the reservations that have zero exposure to the Lakota language.”

Young, a mother of three, is a graduate of the Lakota Language Education Action Program, or LLEAP. The program is a collaboration between Sitting Bull College tribal leaders, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s education department and the Lakota Language Consortium.

According to its web site, “LLEAP courses offer intensive college-level study of the Lakota language. Graduating students will be at the forefront of educating the next generation of fluent speakers.”

Young is from Fort Yates, North Dakota, a community that has seen their language diminished more than most.

“How people look at us is how we often end up defining ourselves”, says Young. “We live in a place where all these negative statistics are sky-high and that’s our everyday reality”, she says, speaking of the high rates of suicide, poverty and unemployment throughout her reservation.

Undeterred, Young explains, “We do have fluent speakers and we do have the support of each other, of the people, of our tribal government; we have a lot on the positive side and the window of opportunity is open. We are prepared to use that to its fullest extent and ready to see a turnaround.”

Believing that her language is just “sleeping,” Young says, “We are capable of bringing our language to where it belongs in our everyday lives – in our homes, on our streets, in our stores and in our schools.”

Within the next ten years,” insists Young, “There will be fluent children in Lakota country once again. They will be the first in maybe three or four generations.”

While learning the language was once viewed as activism or resistance by some, Young believes that now “through the children and grandchildren coming up, we are just embracing who we are. We speak Lakota because we are Lakota.”

Jennifer Weston, a Hunkpapa Lakota, is program manager for Endangered Languages at Cultural Survival. The organization’sr mission states, “Cultural Survival works toward a world in which indigenous peoples speak their languages, live on their land, control their resources, maintain thriving cultures and participate in broader society on equal footing with other peoples. We provide advocacy to amplify indigenous voices around the world and provide support of their efforts to strengthen communities.”

Weston explained to Truthout that “most of our first-language speakers are probably in their mid- to late-50s now and we don’t have a very high life expectancy.” Standing Rock life expectancy is believed to be about 47 years for men, 58 for women.

Realizing that her mother, Marjorie Edwards, a fluent first-language Lakota speaker and teacher who passed away recently at age 59, was part of the last generation of first-language speakers, Weston has committed herself to the revitalization of indigenous languages. She writes and co-produces OurMotherTongues.org, which is an informative web site, dedicated to Native American language revitalization. It is the companion site to “We Still Live Here,” a film about the return of the Wampanoag language. Weston served as assistant producer.

“By the time we are in our 30s, we are going to be looking at a five- to ten-year window where we may not have any first-language speakers there to teach us,” says Weston.

For the Lakota, reviving their language goes far beyond communication.

“It relates to our long-term prospects in terms of improving health outcomes.” Weston says. “I don’t think it is any mistake, or any accident, that we’ve had such a rise in teen suicide. You know, that’s something that really wasn’t widely-known in our communities until the 80s and 90s, and today it’s still a big problem on a lot of reservations and that really correlates with generations of young people who grew up completely without language in their life, without a real tangible connection to Lakota spirituality and to our ceremonies.”

Weston explains, “A lot of us grew up attending sweats and the Sundance,” she says, referring to the sweat lodge and Sundance ceremonies of purification and renewal, “but if we are only able to participate in them in English, or if we have somebody translate them to us, there is a very real fear that we’re losing sight of a real connection to the bigger picture of our culture. That’s the link to our identities and making sure that kids are able to reconnect eventually with a more positive outlook for our communities … and really inspires kids to break the cycle of addictions that are so prevalent in our communities in terms of alcoholism and drug abuse.”

For Weston, “If you are really grounded in your language and your culture, and you’re more concerned about preparing for a particular ceremony,” then having the false sense of connection through drug or alcohol use isn’t needed. “That’s not a factor for you,” she says. “Drop-out rates for high school students are as high as 50 percent in a lot of tribal schools, and most of those kids don’t ever have the opportunity to learn their language in any significant way.”

Lakota as the Language of the Land

As Young explains, “I think it is a very beautiful thing to be Lakota or Dakota, to live here on our own lands and learning our own language; and I truly believe that our language is tied to our land. How many years our land has heard our language, I just believe it belongs here.”

To the Lakota, language is culture. The compartmentalization of all aspects of life is a foreign concept forced on them by western systems of thought, much the way that English was.

The Lakota language “gives children a sense of how our ancestors related to everything. We have the phrase, ‘mitakuye oyasin,’ that we all learn as a way of closing a prayer, or expressing ‘we are all related,’” Weston explained to Truthout.

“Once you start to learn the language you understand that that’s how people really treated one another. That’s how they treated everything that they did, whether it was hunting or preparing for a ceremony,” she says. “Everything was in relation to something else. You are behaving in a way that is respectful and cognizant of maintaining these relationships, and treating not only other people, but other beings and other parts of your environment, with that same sense of kinship.”

Young concludes, “Being a part of the language and learning the language has helped me have a really better life, a higher quality of life here in my home, where most people agree that it’s kind of a hard place to live and grow up; but there’s a lot of good things happening here in our homelands.” The revitalization of her language, for Young, “has really brought me a quality of life that I never before imagined was even possible.”

“I encourage everyone and anyone to learn the language.”

Maybe we all should.

Lakota language gets a boost at Sitting Bull College

Published November 26, 2010

By Steve Young

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) – Language, Tipiziwin Young will tell you, has the power to heal broken cultures.

Especially on South Dakota’s nine Indian reservations, where poverty, alcoholism and violence continue to shatter lives and homes, Young is convinced that the Lakota language can be their salvation.

“Lakota is the language our creator gave us,” Young, who wants to become a Lakota language teacher, says from her Fort Yates, N.D., home. “There is a beauty and power in our prayers, our songs and our words. … that I think can be very healing.”

Officials at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion and Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates see those possibilities, too. That’s why they are developing bachelor’s-degree programs to train teachers of Lakota as a second language.

The two schools have been awarded a four-year, $2.4 million grant by the Department of Education to institute the programs beginning next year and, within the initial four years, to educate 30 new Lakota language teachers.

The grant will pay for one instructor at each school – a Lakota linguistics expert for USD and, at Sitting Bull, an instructor specializing in second language methodology. The schools will be able to share the instructors, either through distance learning or possibly some travel, officials say.

The grant also will allow 16 Native American students at USD and 14 at Sitting Bull College to receive $2,000 a month for two years to pay their tuition, fees and living expenses

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime shot to build an important teaching force in the state,” said Wil Meya, executive director of the Lakota Language Consortium, an Indiana-based collaboration among tribal leaders, linguistic experts and second-language education officials to revitalize the Lakota language.

Meya, whose consortium helped put the grant request together and works on everything from teacher training to textbook creation, said there are more than 120,000 potential Lakota speakers in the Northern Plains.

With the Lakota tribes having mandated language instruction in their schools in the mid-1970s, the grant will make possible for “the first time that a Native American professional development program will focus on language education,” Meya said.

For people such as Young, the opportunity to teach a language she heard at her grandfather’s knee is highly valuable.

“My grandpa … he talked Lakota to me when I was little,” Young, 30, said. “He died when I was young. Every time I hear the language, it brings me back to a perfect time in my childhood, when I was happy and carefree and my grandpa took care of me. When I hear the language, I feel really good.”

The Berenstain Bears Now Speak an Endangered Language

If anyone can save a dying language, it’s Mama Bear, simply because we’re pretty sure she can do anything. 

The Associated Press reports that public television in North Dakota and South Dakota will soon be airing the animated series “Matho Waunsila Thiwahe” — that’s Lakota for “Compassionate Bear Family” — which is a dubbed version of the beloved series The Berenstain Bears. Instead of English, the children’s cartoon characters Mama and Papa Bear, along with Brother and Sister Bear, will be speaking in the little-known American Indian dialect, which the AP reports fewer than 6,000 people still speak.

The project was started as an effort to help preserve the Lakota dialect, which is an ancient language of the Sioux, and apparently only spoken fluently by elderly people. By having the children’s cartoon characters speak in their ancestral language, Lakota-champions are hoping that a new generation will adopt it.

The Berenstain Bears made their first appearance in 1962, when Jan Berenstain first created the children’s book series with her since-deceased husband Stan. At 88, she still writes books for the series and the stories have been translated into more than 20 languages around the world.  Jan, along with everyone else in Berenstain gang, is completely behind the Lakota-dubbing. Jan has called the project “terrific” and Berenstain Enterprises Inc. has waived the usual licensing fees.

Saving Their Language

Published in the March / April 2009 Edition of South Dakota Magazine.

By John Andrews

Albert White Hat spoke Lakota for the first 16 years of his life, but that ended the day he walked into the Jesuit-run boarding school in St. Francis on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. “I came from a community where we sang and danced and did everything in our language,” White Hat recalls. “I walked in that institution and my peers were making fun of us, the ones from the country, for being big Indians, savages. And they were all Indian kids. Many years later I found out they had been in that institution since they were 5. By the time they were teenagers they were conditioned to deny their Indian heritage.”

That was in the early 1950s, the decade in which the Lakota language began disappearing. Today just 14 percent of Indians living on reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota speak Lakota, according to 2000 census figures. And estimates suggest the number has dropped another 25 percent in the last eight years.

Lakota’s official status is “endangered,” according to David Rood, a professor and linguist at the University of Colorado in Boulder and the country’s leading Lakota scholar. There are between 8,000 and 9,000 speakers, but they are growing older. In 1993 the average age of Lakota speakers was about 50. Today it is 65. In those 18 years, fewer children learned Lakota. When fluent elders die, there are no speakers to replace them. “The transmission is broken,” Rood says.

That perilous situation has prompted a movement to create a new generation of Lakota speakers. In South Dakota, Lakota is spoken by seven tribes who live on the Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock and Lower Brule reservations. Dakota, which is closely related to Lakota, is spoken on East River reservations and is split into two dialects – Santee (Sisseton) and Yankton. Most serious preservation efforts occurred in the last 15 years. In the 1990s several tribal councils adopted resolutions declaring Lakota their official language and required schools to teach it. But White Hat has been trying to save the language for nearly 60 years.

He was raised at Spring Creek, a small community of five or six families on the Rosebud. Children learned Lakota ways, and spent winter evenings listening to storytellers explain Lakota history, culture and spirituality using the Lakota language. But in the early 1950s the tribe adopted the state’s education standards, which said nothing about Lakota studies. When his children started school in the Todd County district in the late 1960s, White Hat lobbied for a Lakota language and history program.

“They really gave me a bad time,” he says. “None of them would accept it. They laughed at me. Finally in 1970, they said, ‘You can have a half an hour during noon hour to play your tape and dance.’”

Soon White Hat was teaching Lakota studies part time at St. Francis and Sinte Gleska University, which opened in 1971, even though he knew little about teaching. He had no books and learned how to formulate lesson plans from colleagues. The university hired him full time in 1983.

The Lakota Language Consortium’s goal is to make children on Dakota reservations fluent in Lakota by eighth grade. The consortium, headquartered at the University of Indiana, formed in 2004 when schools on the Pine Ridge reservation teamed with the university to preserve Lakota. The organization helps train teachers and provides textbooks, materials and assessment. The immediate focus is on Native children, but they also work with schools in Rapid City and Sioux Falls. Executive director Wilhelm Meya hopes it fosters reconciliation.

“A lot of people over the last 30 or 40 years have been going through the schools and coming out when they’re 18 and not knowing the language. And they’re very disappointed about that,” says Meya, a native of Austria who became the first non-Indian to earn a Lakota studies degree at Oglala Lakota College. “They’ve been told every day to be proud to be Lakota, but no one ever taught them to speak it. So there’s a frustration there.”

There are plenty of children to teach. Lakota and Dakota people are among the fastest growing populations in the country. In 2000 the population was around 100,000 with half under 18, and it could reach 160,000 by 2025.

In addition to textbooks, the consortium produces audio CDs and flash cards. Staff test more than 6,000 children every fall and spring and monitor progress by reading reports from people like Sacheen Whitetail Cross, tribal education manager for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Standing Rock plunged into a language revitalization program in 2007. The tribe spent $108,000 on teaching materials for six of the reservation’s nine public, grant and parochial schools and organized the first Lakota Summer Institute, a three-week course in which K-12 Lakota teachers learn new activities and methods.

Whitetail Cross organizes the institute and keeps tabs on students. She’s also developing Lakota language games. “I get so excited when I see kids speaking,” she says. “Right now it’s mostly high school students, but I can’t wait to see the young ones begin to use it. It is going to be so empowering to them.”

Revitalization is important on all reservations, but particularly on Standing Rock. Only 13 percent of its residents speak Lakota, the second lowest of South Dakota’s West River reservations behind Lower Brule (4 percent). Cheyenne River has 18 percent, followed by Rosebud (21 percent) and Pine Ridge (26 percent).

Fewer people on East River reservations speak Dakota. The Lake Traverse reservation has just 6 percent, Yankton 10 percent and Crow Creek 12 percent. Diane Merrick, a teacher at Marty Indian School and Ihanktonwan Community College on the Yankton reservation, says most Dakota speakers there (a little over 200 people) have limited knowledge of the language. She estimates only 28 people on the reservation are fluent.

“You get a little excited and nervous,” Merrick says about her language’s tenuous situation. “Language is very central to who we are. It’s a part of our cultural identity. Reaching out in any way we can with our language is very important.”

Merrick coordinates the Dakota language program at Marty and has taught at the college for 12 years, though she never planned on teaching. She has a degree in alcohol and drug abuse studies, but because she is one of the few remaining fluent Dakota speakers in the area, the college asked if she would teach the language. Merrick grew up in a traditional Dakota family on the reservation. Dakota was her first language until her family moved to Yankton when she was 6. She also offers online Dakota language lessons through the Native American Community Women’s Resource Center in Lake Andes (www.nativeshop.org).

Her main focus is teaching elementary students. Every day, students in kindergarten through fifth grade receive a 30-minute language lesson that covers basics like colors, days of the week and months. There is also a morning meditation, flag song and greeting. During the summer Merrick leads an immersion school for children ages 3 to 5. When those children enter Marty elementary, they are a step ahead. “We have a lot of hope that those are the kids who will work toward fluency,” she says.

“I came from a community where we sang and danced and did everything in our language. I walked in that institution and my peers were making fun of us, the ones from the country, for being big Indians, savages.”

Parents are appreciative and often motivated to learn Dakota by enrolling in her college-level Dakota classes. “Many times students will say they just need the four credits to graduate,” Merrick says. “More and more the students are parents and young people who really want to learn their language. It’s important to them.”

In addition to tribal efforts, Leonard Little Finger hopes students will soon attend his private Lakota language immersion school near Oglala on the Pine Ridge reservation. Little Finger dedicated the Sacred Hoop School (Cangleska Wakan Owayawa) last summer.

“It’s a dedication to the ancestry that I come from,” says Little Finger, a co-founder of the Lakota Language Consortium. “It also honors my heritage.” Little Finger’s great-great-grandfather was Chief Big Foot, a signer of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and leader of the band killed at the Wounded Knee Massacre in December 1890. His grandfather, John Little Finger, survived the massacre by hiding in a ravine. He settled on land where the Sacred Hoop School now stands.

Little Finger grew up on Pine Ridge. He left to attend school and work for the Indian Health Service in Aberdeen, but he returned after the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation. “Nobody wanted to come down to Pine Ridge as an administrator,” he says. “I was from there, and my folks still lived there, so I decided to come back.”

After he retired in 1995, Little Finger joined the language revitalization movement. “Since my first language was Lakota, I felt that whatever years were left of my life I would spend teaching in a regular school,” he says. “But I found that the type of teaching that was needed to transfer a language was not possible, particularly because of the No Child Left Behind Act. So reluctantly I had to go on a private basis.”

He raised money to build the school with help from German musician Peter Maffay and Apache singer Robby Romero. Mission of Love, a Youngstown, Ohio, organization dedicated to helping the world’s poorest regions, gathered discounted or donated building materials.

Lakota has been spoken by people in North America for over 3,000 years. When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, hundreds of Native languages flourished across the continent. Only a dozen, including Lakota, survived the westward European advancement and are considered viable today. Studies show that starting in 1954 more Lakota children learned English as a first language than Lakota. “Something happened in that post war era that convinced enough parents that there was no future in getting the kids to speak Lakota,” Meya says.

The federal government is partly to blame. During the 1950s the government reversed its Indian policy. After 20 years of measures designed to let Indians plot their own futures, highlighted by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Eisenhower administration adopted a termination policy. The government sought to end tribal benefits while assimilating Indians into white society. “It was acceptable to say, ‘We live in an English-speaking world. We might as well join,’” Little Finger says. “That was the frame of mind that young parents were picking up.”

As teachers try to restore Lakota’s vitality, they are fortunate that the language is fairly easy to pick up. Meya says it’s straightforward and sounds like German and Slavic languages, which could explain its popularity in Europe. “Lakota is something that people who like to learn languages find relatively easy to learn,” Meya says. “There’s great worldwide interest in the language, and that helps support it. In terms of international use of any Native American language, it is the language that most people want to learn, and we like to encourage that.”

The Lakota alphabet includes 25 characters and 14 digraphs, which are two-letter combinations that represent specific sounds. Linguist Rood calls Lakota a “verb last” language, meaning the sentence structure follows a subject-object-verb pattern. The language has other unique characteristics. The speaker’s gender determines what words are used. Instead of voice inflections, speakers use words at the ends of sentences to convey emotions. “The difference between surprise and disgust, anger or conciliation, is expressed with actual words,” Rood says. “I’ve got a list of about 30 of those words. I keep finding more of them all the time.”

In 1976 Rood co-wrote the first college level Lakota language textbook, Beginning Lakhota. His book is still widely used because in the last 30 years, few new reference books have appeared. “The stumbling block has always been that there is no standard writing system,” Rood says. “Everybody makes up their own system based on what they’ve heard or seen in religious materials, or what they think they should do because they know how to write English.”

Albert White Hat has worked on standardization since 1973, but he encountered problems in the 1990s as he worked on his textbook, Reading and Writing the Lakota Language. White Hat and Jael Kampfe, a Montana native studying at Yale University, began the project in 1992. Kampfe recorded White Hat’s classes. Then they transcribed and edited them into a 226-page book. He sent the manuscript to three linguists and a host of schools and publishers who offered mixed reviews.

“The language has developed what they call a subculture,” White Hat explains. “Historians and anthropologists use the modern translations, and my work contradicts that. They didn’t want that printed.” One major university press told White Hat that, “folk etymology and oral history are fine, but they’re not recorded so this shouldn’t be printed.” The University of Utah Press finally published his book in 1999 and is widely used.

The Lakota Language Consortium took a major step in standardizing Lakota writing with its New Lakota Dictionary. It contains 20,000 words and definitions, including over 6,000 words that have never appeared in a dictionary, and a 90-page section on grammar. The 3,000 “most important” words are highlighted. The book’s introduction discusses the history of the language and lexicography.

Work on the dictionary began in 1985. Its authors consulted over 300 Lakota and Dakota speakers in South Dakota and Minnesota. It is the culmination of nearly 180 years’ worth of efforts to compile Lakota language reference works. The first attempt came from missionary brothers Samuel and Gideon Pond, who collected words among the Santee people in Minnesota in the 1830s. In 1852, missionary Stephen Riggs edited the Grammar and Dictionary of the Dakota Language, and 40 years later, published the Dakota-English Dictionary. John P. Williamson published an English-Dakota dictionary, meant to be a companion to Riggs’ earlier work, in 1902.

Other dictionaries followed in the 20th century. These, and the earlier works, all had faults. In some cases authors simply took words from English dictionaries and had Indians translate them. That process was hit-and-miss because some English words have no Lakota equivalent, resulting in new Lakota words created specifically for the dictionary. Another problem was that authors failed to distinguish between such nuances as aspirated and hard stops, which hindered written development of the language.

South Dakota native Ella Deloria did some of the best work. Growing up on the Yankton and Standing Rock reservations, Deloria learned Lakota and the Yankton dialect of Dakota. She developed a deep appreciation for her language. “The [languages] I know are rich and full of vitality, picturesque, laconic, and capable of subtle shades of meaning,” she wrote in her 1944 book Speaking of Indians. “It was a white man’s joke, now worn rather thin, that all an Indian could do to express himself was to grunt. ‘Ugh!’ was supposed to be his whole vocabulary. But the opposite is true.”

Deloria immersed herself in the language. She spent decades translating old books and meticulously cataloging Lakota and Dakota words. “I have amassed so many words in the Dakota dialects – Yankton, Santee, Teton and Assiniboin – that I despair of ever classifying them and making them available for the use of study in linguistics,” she lamented. But in 1941 she collaborated with renowned linguist Franz Boas on the most complete Lakota grammar to date. And after she died in 1971, Deloria’s linguistic gold mine became the foundation for books like Professor Rood’s Beginning Lakhota and the New Lakota Dictionary.

Thousands of Lakota youth use the dictionary and materials from the Lakota Language Consortium every day. Educators hope they help streamline Lakota language instruction. If they’re right, with help from dedicated teachers like Albert White Hat and Leonard Little Finger the language should be safe for generations.


Educators use more than books to teach Lakota. Graduate students at the University of Colorado are producing videos of Lakota speakers to capture their conversational style. The students then translate, mark sentences for grammar and upload the videos to a computer.

The conversational style is “the least well documented” aspect of Lakota, says Professor David Rood, a linguist at the university. “We’ve got lots of formal language. We’ve got speeches, prayers, traditional stories and biographies in written form, but nobody has ever actually paid attention to the way in which people take turns when they’re talking, or how they interrupt someone politely. That’s part of actually using the language every day.”

In Pine Ridge, Bryan Charging Cloud and his cousin, Robert Two Crow, host a Lakota language show on KILI Radio. “We spoke Lakota about anything, just as long as we used the language,” Charging Cloud says. The show, which airs from 8-9 a.m. (MST) Saturdays, has evolved to include lessons, stories and discussions about the language. Two years ago he added a storytelling hour that airs Wednesdays at 5 p.m.

“These shows are good for people who just want to listen and learn,” says Charging Cloud, who directs the Lakota Language Institute at Oglala Lakota College and leads an immersion program for young children. “A long time ago Lakota people used to tell stories at night. Not too many people speak Lakota now, so they probably don’t do that. We just carry that on.”

Charging Cloud also produces a Lakota language television program for the college’s local channel and has used video conferencing and e-mail to teach students at places like Stanford University in California. Listeners can hear Charging Cloud’s shows at 90.1 FM or online at www.kiliradio.org.

The National Indian Education Association featured an article on Lakota language and the Consortium’s work by LLC founder Wilhelm Meya in its Summer 2009 issue.

This Financial Times Op-Ed piece by Lakota Language Consortium CEO Wilhelm Meya shines the light on the fight to save and reclaim Native American languages.

Click here to view a scanned copy of the 2006 article. 


The Lakota Language Consortium is INCREASING the number of Lakota speakers by providing new language materials, training teachers, and promoting language revitalization across the region. Check out our latest efforts!

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