The Next Generation of Indigenous South Dakotans Deserve a Vibrant Cultural Inheritance

By Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle

Sioux Falls, South Dakota (November 20th, 2020)—Language is vitally significant to human beings and is the primary means of preserving culture. It is also the medium of transmitting knowledge, stories, and philosophy to future generations. In South Dakota, there are nine Native American reservations: Crow Creek Agency, Cheyenne River Agency, Pine Ridge Agency, Standing Rock Agency, Lower Brule Agency, Yankton Agency, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, Sisseton Agency and Rosebud Agency. These tribes all view their language as sacred.

Agencies refer to the federal government’s organization of the reservations and is not reflective of the name of the tribal governments that govern the reservations. One of the examples is the Oglala Sioux Tribe that governs the Pine Ridge Agency, which is a reservation. These reservations are comprised of diverse bands of the Lakota and Dakota people. In most cases, members of each agency consist of many different bands. The bands may be on one reservation or spread among multiple reservations.

The Lakota, Dakota and Nakota dialects, which constitute the Siouan language family, was not a written language until recently. Multiple efforts have been made to standardize the language into a curriculum which can be formally taught. A result of the mostly-oral language is that there are variations between dialects, bands and families which can influence the ability to learn the language in a school setting. 

Historical traumas such as Indian Boarding schools, the forced assimilation and relocation of indigenous people has created a web of intergenerational loss of culture and threatens the loss of languages to the point of extinction.

 Acknowledging these truths and working with tribal nations is one of the primary goals of the South Dakota Democratic Party. On November 23, SDDP Executive Pamela Cole and Cante Heart, SDDP Native Field Outreach Field Director, met with Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Rodney Bordeaux. Due to the pandemic, the meeting was held virtually and served as an opportunity for the tribal president to share his thoughts, concerns and hopes for his tribe.

Healthcare, tribal sovereignty, economic development, telecommunications, the pandemic, and education were some topics covered during the discussion. 

With Covid-19 out of control in South Dakota, tribal nations have become embattled and each tribe has taken its own approach at keeping tribal members and residents safe. Elders are revered in Lakota/Dakota society and are a vulnerable population whose protection play important roles in tribes’ Covid-19 emergency response.

Most often, elders are the wisdom keepers who carry the knowledge that is passed onto the younger generation. The pandemic has devastated the Rosebud Sioux Reservation and during the meeting, President Bordeaux shared that over a dozen elders have succumbed to Covid-19. The losses are devastating to the nation and chips away at the number of fluent speakers.

President Bordeaux shared that there is a concerted effort on Rosebud to preserve and conserve the language. Pre-pandemic, the tribe’s childcare program surveyed the reservation’s fluent speakers and identified 500 speakers at the age of 70 and above, two under the age of 30, and zero under the age of 18.

The tribe’s Sicangu Education Initiative is working to revitalize principles of Lakota education within a modern context. The first project, Wakanyeja Tokeyahci Wounspe Tipi (Children First Learning Center), is a language immersion school where students will gain fluency in the Lakota, while learning through principles and philosophies of Indigenous education.

Information posted on states that if younger generations do not preserve the Lakota language, it will be extinct within 10 years, an alarming statistic that many tribes face in the United States.

Wakanyeja Tokeyahci has entered a two-year space sharing agreement with the Boys and Girls Club of Rosebud to use their Mission, South Dakota facility. When fully implemented, the immersion school will serve over 70 students from kindergarten to fifth grade.

During the 2020 legislative session, Democratic Sen. Troy Heinert (Sicangu Lakota) sponsored Senate Bill 66, which would create and fund Oceti Sakowin community-based schools. The bill called for the creation of schools that embrace indigenous language with a strong core instructional program designed to help students meet academic standards, provide individual enrichment activities, while supporting cognitive, social, emotional, moral, and physical development. 

The bill had bipartisan support, but sadly didn’t make its way out of committee. There are plans to revisit the issue during the 2021 legislative session.

In its platform, the South Dakota Democratic Party advocates for Native language, cultural practice preservation, use and revitalization in all communities in South Dakota, including traditional ceremonies. 

Tribal initiatives such as Wakanyeja Tokeyahci Wounspe Tipi are vital, and the SDDP is proud to support South Dakota’s nine tribes. The next generation of Lakota and Dakota deserve a rich and vibrant cultural inheritance.

Please direct questions to SDDP Executive Director Pam Cole via email or phone (605) 695-1996.