It’s innovation and dedication that has this Lakota language group growing by leaps and bounds, according to staff and participants. The Lakota Language for Beginners Facebook (LLBF) page went from having 60 to more than 11,000 members in a year and a half and it continues to grow.
The founder of the group, Charles B. Smith, who is also known by his Lakota name, Unpa Nunpa (Smokes Twice), said the difficulty of some Lakota programs is the loss of Lakota speakers. He said that and the role of language in culture were factors that pushed him towards the creating the group. The process started for Smith because of his increased involvement with Lakota ceremonies and the realization that he needed to learn the language.
“I have been attending Lakota ceremonies for over 30 years and had gained an extensive vocabulary,” Smith explained. “However, I did not get serious about learning the language until two years ago. There were two other Lakota language groups on Facebook at that time, but they were, and mostly continue to be, for those who already know the language.
“I have the deepest admiration and respect for Jan Ullrich and everyone at the Lakota Language Consortium. “The work they are doing is of paramount importance to preserving our language for future generations, but I wanted to create a learning site that would be more open and inviting.”
Smith discussed his frustration with his Uncle Les Ducheneaux, an award winning Lakota language instructor at Tiospaye Topa School in LaPLant, South Dakota, who is now retired and goes by the name of Wakinyan Cangleska Tiospaye in the group. He described his predicament to Ducheneaux who had already developed a verb-based learning plan that had been very successful in teaching grade school children.
“I told him about my idea to create a new Lakota language group where beginners could go to get started in as nurturing and supportive an environment as possible. Lakota is extremely difficult for many adult learners,” Smith said.
Ducheneaux, who was also dedicated to Lakota spirituality, culture and traditions, agreed to join his nephew in developing the group and in March of 2013 they started with 60 family members and friends.
The veteran educator said the way to make Lakota language instruction more successful for adults, as it had been for children, was to offer his verb-based lessons to the group.
“One of the problems in the reservation schools... was that the teachers would start with colors, numbers and give the students a list of nouns,” Ducheneaux said, “and you can’t speak with only nouns. I developed a verb-based strategy that gave out vocabulary with verbs to use in sentences, and to keep a log of verbs... that’s how you can begin to really speak the language and enjoy it.”
“Our success is largely due to our verb-based curriculum and getting the students to speak the language,” he said. “A lot of fluent speakers haven’t learned the art of critiquing; we critique our participants but we do it privately.”
“The group is really cooking,” Ducheneaux said.
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Group member Gena Wasley agrees.
“The forum is really wonderful,” she said. “They make you feel comfortable without feeling stupid for struggling.”
She also said the way in which the group’s staff correct mistakes “are done in such a way to encourage me to learn about the language and the culture.”
“There’s always someone there to help out,” Wasley said about the team that, along with Smith and Ducheneaux, includes teachers Nancy DeerWithHorns, Michael Rossi, Sharon Smith, and Elliot Bannister who help with lessons and managing group affairs.
The Facebook group also includes links to their YouTube channel and they’re in the process of developing more videos. While he said he is very happy about the success of the page, for Smith the issue of teaching the language goes beyond teaching about verbs, nouns and grammar.
“I am basically a Lakota nationalist,” Smith said. “I believe firmly that we are a separate, sovereign and distinct people currently colonized by the United States. I dream and long for a cultural rebirth among our people that will see us once again embrace traditional values and ways of living; a return to living more simply, with respect towards the earth and fellow human beings, free from alcohol and drug abuse and the rampant materialism and greed of these times. The language needs to be the centerpiece of our cultural rebirth. This is also the reason we offer cultural as well as language lessons in the group. We proudly offer history lessons from our point of view. All of this is in the hope to begin the building of a new, modern national identity for the Lakota Nation.”