Last modified: Thursday, December 10, 2015

Full disclosure: I have more than a passing interest in “Rising Voices/Hothaninpi: Revitalizing the Lakota Language,” the new documentary from Northampton filmmakers Larry Hott and Diane Garey.

Her name is Thiwakhanna Mentz, and she lives on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Fort Yates, North Dakota

She’s the 6-year-old daughter of my niece, Mary Wilson, and her husband, Tim Mentz, who is Pabaksa Dakota and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

(A note about terms: The people of Standing Rock are often called Sioux, though it’s not a name they call themselves. They are members of the Lakota and Dakota nations, according to the reservation’s website; within those nations are various divisions, each with its own cultural, linguistic and territorial distinctions.)

Thiyata — that’s her nickname — is a first-grader at the Lakota Language Nest, an immersion school for 22 children ages 2 to 7, that’s shown in several scenes in “Rising Voices.” Now in her fourth year at the Nest, she speaks Lakota during her school day, and sprinkles Lakota words and phrases into her conversations at home.

One day recently, when Mary asked what kind of cereal she wanted her mom to buy, Thiyata said she’d like “the kind with the chapa (beaver) on it.”

“I had no idea what that was,” Mary told me, “but I was delighted that was how she expressed herself.”

New approach

Immersion programs are relatively new on the reservations and, as “Rising Voices” notes, there are only a tiny handful of them. They’re an effort to improve on decades-long, piecemeal approaches to teaching native languages — and they’re a marked reversal of even older government policies that punished Native Americans for using their languages. Drawing on research that suggests there are cognitive and social benefits to growing up bilingual, immersion programs on reservations are attracting government support.

Announcing a $300,000 grant in August to support Lakota language initiatives at Standing Rock, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., noted the need and the hope: “Native youth have the cards stacked against them,” she said. “More than a third live in poverty, only half graduate from high school.” Research now shows that immersion programs can help, she said. “They boost morale, improve performance and attendance, and give students the tools they need to better understand their history and culture.”

On the road

Last July, my husband, Lou Groccia, and I packed up our car and drove, and drove some more, to visit Tim, Mary and Thiyata. We covered 1,800 miles to get there, and, as we rolled along, we watched the tree-filled landscape of the East give way to the open spaces and big sky of the Great Plains.

Standing Rock covers an area about the size of Connecticut, stretching into North and South Dakota.

Mary first went to Standing Rock as an Oberlin College intern in 2001 to work in the Tribal Historical Preservation Office. Long story short, she returned after graduating and has lived there for 13 years.

In addition to running a small consulting business with her husband, Mary volunteers at her daughter’s school and takes Lakota language classes. Learning the language has been “very labor-intensive and sometimes I get frustrated,” she says. But “there is a community that has grown up around the revitalization of the language, and being involved in that is immensely satisfying and rewarding.”

Tour guide

With Thiyata as our guide, Lou and I visited the Nest on a hot August morning. Located on the campus of Sitting Bull College, it’s a bright, airy space with lots of tall windows. Thiyata showed us the usual stuff — her cubby, her locker — along with the not-so usual stuff: a buffalo hide for curling up in, posters on the walls with numbers and words in Lakota, and books like Eric Carle’s “Does A Kangeroo Have a Mother Too?” that volunteers have translated into Lakota.

Though the first day of school was still several weeks away, Tipiziwin Tolman, one of four teachers at the school, was there, getting ready for the coming year.

Tolman, who is of Wichiyena Dakota and Hunkpapa Lakota heritage, makes several appearances in “Rising Voices.” She’s a passionate advocate for the Language Nest, but candid about its challenges.

Funding for immersion programs, which depend on grants and donations, can be uncertain. Though financial aid is available, the Nest’s fee is $160 every two weeks, putting it out of reach for some families, she said. The vast distances on the reservation and beyond mean that some children are spending two hours a day in the car. Parents are required to take Lakota classes themselves, and volunteer at the school if they can.

For some, it’s just too much.

“Our school is not for everyone and I understand that,” she said.

Tolman said she hopes the Nest will help her students be “happy, comfortable in their own skins, proud and self-confident.” No matter where they go in life, she said, “they’ll carry that with them.”

She believes “with all my heart,” she said, that the Nest nurtures their abilities to become leaders in their families and communities.

When Lakota families gather, she told me, “it’s always an elder” who leads the prayers, “and no one knows what the words mean.”

But now, these children are starting to participate — in Lakota. “And I love seeing that.”

As we left the campus that day, we walked past a large portrait of Sitting Bull, the revered Hunkpapa Lakota chief and holy man who led years of resistance to the U.S. military. Sitting Bull lived at Standing Rock before his death and was killed there by Indian Agency police in 1890.

Next to the portrait was this quotation from Sitting Bull:

“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

It seemed an apt selection to guide the goings on in the classroom down the hall.

Suzanne Wilson is a former Gazette reporter and editor.

For more information about the Lakota Language Nest, visit Under the Community tab, click on Immersion Nest.


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