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Lakota Circle Village to use home schooling model for language teaching

OGLALA, S.D. – Lakota Circle Village used to be just a dream. Since ground was broken on it last March, the idea has been putting down serious roots.

A project of the Lakota Language Consortium, a nonprofit that promotes language preservation, the village will be a Lakota immersion school on the Pine Ridge Reservation for children ages 5 – 12, set to open in Oglala in the fall of 2007.

“On this reservation there is no program that is successfully creating fluent speakers,” said Leonard Little Finger, co-founder of LLC and vice chairman of its board of directors. “The only way it’s going to happen is if it’s community-based, community-assisted, and [we] find a way to be able to give that child as they progress in life the same kind of recognition they would get in a different school.”

The current climate isn’t good, he admitted. Hispanic immigrants caused a stir last spring by daring to sing the national anthem in Spanish, Little Finger recalled. President Bush “was standing out there the same as Richard Pratt, when he said ‘we want to assimilate our Indian people’” at Carlisle School. The “English-only” movement is strident and powerful.

But Spanish, a worldwide tongue, is hardly endangered. Of some 500 indigenous languages in North America, by contrast, half have disappeared since 1492. Lakota is one of only a few dozen with a fighting chance to survive.

Little Finger likes the challenge. “I found an answer through home schooling concepts,” he said recently. Religious groups come to the reservation and develop a private-school curriculum for state approval. Since Christian fundamentalists have designed their own curriculum for years, Little Finger wondered, “why not for Lakota language, too?”

The school will operate on a “home education” model, without state accreditation for the time being. The current South Dakota standards for Lakota education are too European-based to be useful, he said, but accreditation “will come eventually.”

At the heart of their plan is an old controversy: evolution versus creationism. “We are creation-based,” Little Finger said firmly, noting that parallels exist between Lakota and Christian spirituality. Though the school will offer social studies, science, language and math – all from a Lakota perspective – the core of the program will be spiritual teachings.

A well-known Oglala elder, Little Finger has the credentials to talk curriculum. After retiring from a long career with IHS, he took 18 hours of courses at Oglala Lakota College and received state certification to teach. He’s taught Lakota on the reservation, been a supervisor for 11 language teachers and done research on developing curriculums along the way.

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But a difficult question has dogged the consortium from the beginning: Where would the money come from?

LLC knocked on more doors than an eager salesman. None of them opened an inch. Finally, a third party hooked Little Finger up with European rock star Peter Maffay, a singer credited with a dozen No. 1 pop songs in Germany.

Maffay, who’s made it his business to help children worldwide, came to visit Pine Ridge last year. He decided to add Lakota Circle Village to a list of projects that includes 17 communities from Peru and South Korea to Cape Verde, Romania, Afghanistan and the Gaza Strip in the Middle East.

Each of these project communities sends a singer to Germany to record a compact disc track with Maffay before his biannual concert tour. They release the CD six months in advance, the singers do a 20-city tour with Maffay, and the proceeds are split among the participating groups. Other sources of income for the village will include a picture book and a documentary film.

Robby Romero and his Red Thunder band represented Lakota Circle Village this year and recorded with Maffay in the spring. The CD is due to be released in Germany in October.

Three principles will guide Lakota Circle Village. The first is knowledge of Lakota mores, language and history. The second is expertise with cutting-edge language technology and training. The third is organization: Little Finger has bona fides there, too, having worked as an IHS administrator with 10 tribal governments on Pine Ridge from the heyday of the American Indian Movement to the mid-1990s.

Little Finger anticipates an initial group of 15 – 20 children in a common classroom. He dismisses the idea of grades as being too Western and emphasizes “knowledge acquisition” in a setting where mutual respect, not individual achievement, is paramount. Administrators plan classes six days per week and 900 contact hours per year, well up to benchmark standards of successful immersion schools.

The consortium has already developed two Lakota textbooks, richly illustrated and oriented towards beginning learners. The objective is to help Lakota children survive the “cultural competency war,” said Little Finger. “And it is a war.”

During summers, LLC plans to use the school to share knowledge with tourists, a way to generate local income and jobs. A modular unit – the school’s temporary home – is due to be hooked up to sewer, water and electric lines this fall.

Little Finger, who will be lecturing in Germany to promote the school this October, takes the long view of success: “I’d love to see the school produce a future tribal chairman,” he said.