Revitalizing the Lakota language through dance

By Kristi Eaton
Rosebud, South Dakota (AP) August 2012

With the Lakota-speaking population rapidly aging and decreasing, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota is trying to encourage young children to take an interest in a language that is, in many ways, secondary to English.

The tribe’s Child Care Service’s Song and Dance Project aims to teach families how to make colorful, detailed dancing regalia and teaches the intricate dances to the children so they can perform in the annual wacipi, or powwow.

The hope is that the song and dance will help re-energize both parents’ and children’s excitement about their culture. It also encourages parents to take an active role in their kids’ lives.

“It’s putting identity and pride back into the people,” said Gale Spotted Tail, director of the Child Care Services.

She said that as the tribe looked at ways to identify how to revitalize the language, they noticed that many tribal members had little interest in learning the Lakota language or taking part in cultural activities. There are fewer than 6,000 Lakota speakers – less than 14 percent of the Lakota population in North and South Dakota, and the average age of a Lakota speaker is 60. One of the biggest challenges to learning Lakota is that there is no agreed-upon orthography, or conventional spelling system.

“We’re really looking at what does it take to get people to want to learn and want to be who we used to be?” Spotted Tail said. “A lot of it is instilling that pride and going back into history.”

The project also seeks to create unity among the different bands of the Lakota tribes that now live on different reservations, she said.

A handful of employees for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s project travel to the reservation’s various communities for short dance workshops several times a week to teach the kids – from newborns to 17-year-olds – dancing techniques for the annual Wakanyeja Okolakiciye Wacipi. Children can attend one workshop or more.

The dances performed at the wacipis often tell the story of a warrior or hunter searching for enemies. While the babies may not take part in any Fancy Dances – a style of dance that requires stamina and agility because of intense footwork – moving their body, or even just their head, to the beat of a drum comes naturally to many of the youngsters, Spotted Tail said.

The wacipi has traditionally played a significant role in Lakota culture as a way to celebrate. Many of the Lakota tribes in South Dakota hold several multi-day wacipis throughout the summer that include singing, dancing and other activities to honor their culture.

“They’re the next generation,” instructor Jerimiah Holly Bull, 27, said of the kids he works with. “They’re the ones that are going to carry on our tradition from what our ancestors taught us. We’re the ones teaching our little kids so they can teach their kids.”

Hundreds of kids dressed from the various tribes are expected to take part in this year’s children wacipi, scheduled for Aug. 14 and 15 in Rosebud. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who will be visiting the reservation then, is expected to attend.