Nourishing Our Spirits Through Our Language & Children

I met the film-maker Larry Hott three years before he began filming Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi, an NEH-funded documentary that tells the story of our tribe's efforts to revitalize the Lakota language. At the time, I was an avid learner of the Lakota language, but I wasn't yet an instructor in the Lakota Language Nest, a pre-school where children are immersed in the Lakota language. The year I met him, Larry came to the community to take preliminary notes. The following year we recorded audio, and the year after we recorded video. The fourth year was when we recorded the majority of the film. When I was asked for an interview, I thought it was a great opportunity to tell the story of our pre-school and of Standing Rock’s communities more generally. 

Only six years ago, the Lakota language on Standing Rock was in imminent danger of being one of the hundreds of tribal languages across America that was on the path to silence. Today, the average age of a fluent first-language speaker is 70 years old and the majority of the younger population does not speak or understand their heritage language. The current state of the Lakota language is a repercussion of deliberate federal mandates and policies that prohibited the speaking and learning of the Lakota language for more than 70 years. I believe that the lack of access to our language has contributed to a cultural identity void that leaves our people susceptible to social ills, such as alcohol and drug use and sexual and domestic violence. 

In 2012, the Lakota Language Nest began as a small, preschool with one goal: to nourish the Lakota language among Standing Rock's youngest citizens. The children, aged two to four, are immersed in the Lakota language throughout their eight hour day. Typical pre-school activities—story time, singing lullabies, sequencing and sorting—are carried out exclusively in the Lakota language. The school also provides cultural immersion. Everyday Lakota Language Nest staff and children began with smudging, spiritually cleansing with traditional medicines, and singing a Lakota prayer song. Lakota traditional protocols such as shaking hands, praying before meals, expressing gratitude, and using relative kinship terms are the norm in the classroom.

The children who attend this small school are the first child speakers of the Lakota language in Standing Rock's communities in over fifty years. They are now equipped with gifts from their language –a strong Lakota identity and Lakota culture and belief that they can share with their families and peers.  We witness on a daily basis the revitalization of the Lakota language through our children. This is extremely satisfying. 

Featured prominently in the film Rising Voices, the Lakota Language Nest is a collaboration of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's Education Department, the Lakota Language Consortium and Sitting Bull College. This strong partnership has allowed the program to continue expanding with the Nest's initial cohort, and there is a sequenced plan in place to grow it into a full-fledged Lakota Language immersion elementary school.

Rising Voices has provided us with a rare opportunity to offer the public an in-depth account of why the Lakota language has come close to disappearing. More importantly, it has allowed us to tell the story of our ongoing efforts to revitalize our language and communities. The children who attend the Lakota Language Nest play a key role in these efforts. They are little leaders, paving a new path for a new generation of Lakota children who will nourish their people's spirit's back to health through speaking the language of their relatives in the generations before them.



Tipiziwin Tolman, Wičhíyena Dakota and Húŋkpapȟa Lakȟóta from Standing Rock, is a Lakota Language Activities Instructor in the Lakota Language Nest since 2012. She has served as a member and co-chair of Standing Rock’s Education Consortium’s Lakota Language and Culture Committee and taught at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s annual Lakotiyapi Summer Institute. Tipiziwin is a graduate of Sitting Bull College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Native American studies. She also completed the College’s intensive Lakota language teacher preparation program involving the study of the Lakota language, second-language teaching approaches and language acquisition methodologies. She is married to T Tolman, who is a Lakota language instructor in the Wičhákini Owáyawa, and they have four children.