In a preschool classroom at a tribal college, Tom Red Bird teaches the Lakota language to Sioux children.
Other than the English they jabber among themselves, these little ones hear and speak Lakota with Red Bird and the three instructional aides in the room.
Red Bird speaks it fast and fluently since his own childhood on the Cheyenne Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The aides speak it slowly. They, too, are learning as they go.
The children speak it enthusiastically, aided with flash cards or art projects made with glue and cotton balls to learn words for rain and lightning. Their success wrapping their tongues around these new words is applauded and happiness shows on their faces when they get it right.
The program at Sitting Bull Community College is an experiment. The college is on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border.
“The reason I came here is I want to save my language. It’s precious to me. When there came a chance to teach, I jumped at this,” Red Bird said.
He estimates maybe one-third of the reservation is fluent in Lakota. The death of each elder diminishes that number; 10 years ago 80 percent were fluent, he said.
Immersed since September, the preschoolers know about 50 words in Lakota, including colors, foods and directions.