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The program was almost derailed last month when a severe South Dakota blizzard forced it out of its building. It was given another building in Oglala and recently moved in, but Hill knows the clock is ticking.
“The oldest kids are between 2 and 3 and starting to talk,” he said. “Eventually our feet will get held to the fire. If we say we’re an immersion program, we need to produce fluent kids.”
Finding qualified staff and enforcing 100 percent spoken Lakota remains the biggest hurdle.
“Even fluent speakers aren’t used to avoiding English,” he said. “People aren’t used to speaking Lakota to children. If they were, the language would be in much better shape. It’s a steep learning curve.”
If the language is to survive, the greater movement to save it will have to center on two things, Hill said — kids learning it as a first language and people like himself learning and teaching it as a second language.
Randi and Joe Giago, who both studied the language in college and learned it from relatives, say they are encouraged by the new efforts.
They speak in Lakota half the time, gently pushing their kids to learn more than names of household objects. They want conversation:
Le aŋpetu kiŋ owayawa ekta takuku uŋspenič'ičhiya he? (What did you learn in school today?)
Wana wakȟaŋyeža kiŋ iyuŋgwičhuŋkhiyiŋ kta iyečheča. (We should put the kids to bed.)
And: thečhiȟila (I love you), a sentiment now mastered by both girls.
Randi is pursuing a master’s degree in language revitalization and hopes to someday open a school focused on a holistic approach to culture and language.
She is expecting another child next summer, and said that even with her aspirations to start a school, the heart of language learning should be in the home.
In their home, their daughters’ traditional native cradleboards — built, sewn and beaded by family — are out on display, a visible reminder of the couple’s insistence on raising their children with ties to their native blood.
“The day we have grandchildren and they can speak to us in Lakota, then we’ll know we did it right,” Randi said. “Then we can die happy.”
Joe Boucher learned Lakota in college and speaks the language part-time to his two daughters. Click below to hear some Lakota words. Pronunciation varies depending on the gender of the speaker. Below, the pronunciation of "my name is" changes if the speaker is female.
thiyáta: Home, dwelling
otiwota: A Lakota word explaining origin or roots, where one comes from. In this clip, Boucher explains the meaning, which doesn't translate perfectly into English.
I'm happy to see you.
My name is Joe.
A Lakota version of "Are You Sleeping" is used to help students learn. The lyrics are:
Joe is my name, Joe is my name.
What is your name?
Megan is my name, Megan is my name.
Good to meet you, good to meet you.