GREEN BAY, Wis. - When Leslie Ducheneaux was young, the Cheyenne River
spiritual leader remembers hauling water uphill about 100 yards from the
clear waters of the Missouri River to his old ranch home that used kerosene
lamps for lighting and scrub wood for heating.
Located deep on the prairie near Swift Bird, S.D., Ducheneaux grew up in a
family of 11 children and was educated at the old Cheyenne Agency Boarding
Pulled away from a pending Sun Dance ceremony on the Cheyenne River
Reservation, Ducheneaux was ordered by his boss, Donald Farlee, to report
to the National Indian School Board Association Conference in Green Bay ...
where he was stunned to learn July 19 that he had been selected by the
organization as 2005 Tribal Elder of the Year.
Publicly recognized before a packed house of Indian education leaders from
around the nation, testimonials described the soft-spoken culture teacher
as a tireless educator whose work has been crucial to the successful
integration of Lakota language and culture into the academic curriculum of
the Tiospaye Topa School near Ridgeview, S.D.
Farlee declared that Ducheneaux has been "the beacon of hope who has kept
the Lakota ways constantly visible to the people of our community."
"I never heard a student conversation in Lakota around our school until
Leslie came on board," noted Farlee, the principal of the small tribal
grant school for nearly all of its nine years of existence.
Both Farlee and Ducheneaux characterized the success of the Lakota language
program as due to a unique combination of teaching methods and dedicated
Known throughout his community as Mato Sake, or Bear Claw, he criticized
the usual methods used by many schools that attempt to teach tribal
languages in a noun-based approach - body parts, colors, and animals.
"It doesn't work," stated Ducheneaux. "It must be put into sentences - we
teach it in verbs," he continued, elaborating with a rationale about the
importance of conversationally speaking the language from simple to
progressively complex sentences as a child matures.
"My wife Debbie doesn't get any of the credit that I do," said Ducheneaux,
deflecting praise about the successful education program toward her work
and that of many others in the school and community.
The school, with Ducheneaux's help, replicated the Big Horn Mountains
medicine wheel on land near the school. After a visit to the pre-Columbian
sacred site "atop a large Wyoming mountain, school staff, with the
assistance of the math and science departments, constructed a gigantic
medicine wheel to precise specifications with calculations that delineated
the summer and winter solstices and global positioning. Every year, the
senior class ceremonially hands it down to the junior students as they are
about to graduate.
The medicine wheel is used in teachable moments to guide the lives of
Lakota students and remind them of the sacredness of their heritage,
according to Ducheneaux.
The remarkable thing about his success in increasing the conversational use
of the Lakota language among the student body and staff is that he wasn't
always a speaker. Ducheneaux was raised in a family that recognized the
Lakota language, but didn't use it.
His father, Frank, was the legendary tribal leader who served 32 years on
the Cheyenne River tribal council, 16 of those as chairman. His mother,
too, was a leader.
"From them I gained a sense to help my tribe," said Ducheneaux, reflecting
upon his younger years.
Then in 1976, he turned his life around, becoming deeply involved in Lakota
"My great-great-grandmother, Red-White Buffalo Woman, was killed in the
Powder River country," Ducheneaux stated as he momentarily paused,
searching for more words.
"Her Tiospaye [extended family] fled from the U.S. Army to avoid
incarceration on the reservation," he continued slowly, then added, "Crazy
Horse's camp was overrun by the soldiers.
"She was shot by a horse soldier ... her family had to escape, so they
couldn't go back after her," he said as tears suddenly appeared under his
eyes and his throat tightened.
"I tell my own children we must live this because Grandma died for you.
"She died for the Lakota language and the way of life ... I have to carry
this ... if I don't, I do a disservice to her.
"I am so driven," Ducheneaux continued, attempting to explain his sense of
urgency in the preservation of Lakota lifeways. "Sometimes I have to defend
it from my own people.
"I guess some haven't made this connection yet," he concluded, looking away
into the distance.
Sun dancer, Pipe keeper, and keeper of the Sweat Lodge, Leslie Ducheneaux -
great-great-grandson of Red-White Buffalo Woman - carries the Lakota
language to his people.