Family engagement leads to Lakota lessons outside the classroom

A school on the Rosebud Reservation delivers a family-centered educational experience aimed at revitalizing the Lakota language and culture

Tears streamed down Janice Dillon’s face as she watched the Lakota Language Bowl. Her grandchildren and their classmates at Wakanyeja Tokeyahci Wounspe Ti, a Lakota immersion elementary school on the Rosebud Reservation, had just taken four of the top five spots in the Language Bowl at the Lakota Nation Invitational in Rapid City.

Dillon’s tears flowed from pride not only in their progress as students, but also from her realization of what young students learning the language will mean to the future of the Lakota language and culture.

“I actually cried seeing how well our children performed in the competition. Being so little and going up against kids who are a couple of grades older than them in different schools,” she said. “It was great seeing how much they knew and how well they did in the competition.”

Wakanyeja Tokeyahci Wounspe Ti (Children First Learning Center) is the only full Lakota language immersion school on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Now beginning its fourth year, the school is making strides with students and creating positive effects beyond the classroom.

Communication between the school and parents goes far beyond emails and phone calls. In addition to parent nights and language classes for the entire family, the teachers have also done home visits to get to know the students’ families and build stronger relationships.

Brian and Janice Dillon have two grandchildren who attend classes at Wakanyeja Ki Tokeyahci and they couldn’t be happier about the educational, linguistic, and cultural growth they see in their grandchildren.

Janice said her grandson is in his third year at the school. Last year, when his sister was still in Head Start, he would come home from the immersion school and teach his little sister the lessons he was learning in class.

“They were playing back and forth and she wanted a toy,” Janice said. “And he was telling her to take the toy and then he was telling her to give it back to him. But he was doing it in Lakota and she was saying it after him. That was kind of a moment for me that hit me; with him teaching his sister like that.” 

But the lessons coming home weren’t reserved solely for his little sister. Brian grew up with grandparents who spoke Lakota but they didn’t teach him the language. Unlike his grandparents, Brian’s grandson is bringing Lakota lessons home to him.

“It’s kind of a role reversal,” Brian said. “It’s a little bit different to have a child teaching me because I’m 53 years old, but it’s awesome.”

Founding Director of the School Sage Fast Dog said that those interactions were created intentionally when the curriculum was designed.

“I wanted to create the school I needed when I was going to school,” Fast Dog said. “I wanted a school that recognized me as a Lakota and didn’t see my skin color as a roadblock to my intelligence. We also really wanted to empower families to take ownership of their student’s education and provide them with the resources to make sure learning continues in the home.”

Brian said they could see right away that this new school was different, not just in the lessons but in the behavior of the students and staff. In traditional Lakota style, his grandson wears long hair in a braid. At his preschool, he was called names and bullied for his appearance, despite being in a Native community.

At Wakanyeja Ki Tokeyahci, his looks and his culture are recognized as a positive, not a reason for being mocked.

“We want children to learn from a Lakota perspective - the virtues, generosity, compassion, those kinds of things,” Brian said. “Since he’s been at the school, we’ve never had situations like that (the past mistreatment).”

Brian said those differences in how Lakota children are seen and taught extend beyond lessons. 

“I don’t know if it’s due to learning the language and the immersion in Lakota culture, or if it’s just the general dynamics of how they present and teach, but it’s more of a family unit orientation, rather than an individual,” he said. 

“The staff members are really there for the kids. You can tell,” he said. “You can tell that they’re not just there for a paycheck. I can take my grandson to school, and when he gets there in the morning, they’re singing a song. They’re smudging to have a good day. They are learning a different form of respect.”

Janice said she expects the school to be successful in many ways, extending beyond just creating Lakota language speakers. She said the atmosphere in the school is conducive to student success in every way.

“My four daughters never really wanted to be at school,” she said. “Regardless of what grade it was, they got less and less attentive to it as they got older. But with our grandkids, they generally wake up and want to go to school. It is cute to hear my granddaughter singing a four direction song in the shower while she’s getting ready to go to school. It really makes my heart happy to see them learning and enjoying those things.”

Fast Dog said teaching children their language and culture and pride in their Lakota heritage is the main way WakanyejaTokeyahci is different than public schools, even those that may have a population of Lakota students.

“In public schools, many Lakota kids are taught – directly or subconsciously – that being Lakota means they aren’t capable or intelligent,” Fast Dog said. “That’s how we’re different. We are saying - and proving - that is so wrong. Embracing the culture and language will be how we make a real difference on the Rosebud Reservation in the future.”

For more information, contact:

Jillian Waln jillian@sicangu. co – or 480-938-4554

PO Box 229, Mission, SD 57555 • 605-856-4469 • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.