By Megan Kauffmann, Impact Evaluator, Administration for Native Americans
As I toured Lakota Woglaka Wounspe elementary school with the school’s director, I noticed the Lakota alphabet and Native American art covering the walls. When we arrived at the gym, teachers were supervising students playing basketball, speaking only Lakota. A child chased a ball that landed at the director’s feet, and greeted him respectfully in the language as he scooped it up.
Lakota Woglaka Wounspe is a kindergarten through fourth grade language immersion school supported by Oglala Lakota College in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. I visited the school in 2013 to learn how their Administration for Native Americans (ANA) language grant unfolded. Looking at student assessments and hearing Lakota through the halls, I could tell the project increased use of the language. I was equally impressed when the director said his students have a more positive outlook, deeper connection to culture, and increased self-confidence as a result of the program.
I have visited 25 ANA language projects, and grantees often say positive cultural identity and confidence go hand in hand with language gains. ANA language programs provide a safe place, rooted in culture, where connection to extended and intergenerational family is valued. They are a place for peer learning, where older students become leaders for younger ones, and bullying is limited to non-existent. They often have a small number of students, and teachers come from the community.
Grantees say their language programs build up children’s protective factors, keeping them away from negative influences and buffering their emotional strength to handle crises. For example, staff from Nkwusm, a school with a Salish immersion program in Montana, said their small student-teacher ratio keeps children away from gang involvement. Staff from the Mohawk immersion Akwesahsne Freedom School in New York said when students learn the Thanksgiving Address, a traditional speech of welcome, they become more grounded in their cultural identity.
There is building evidence that culture and language programs nurture resilience in Native American youth. There is also evidence that language learning is associated with increased academic performance. A recent article from Indian Country Today features several language schools and programs (including former ANA language grantee Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu School) where students are excelling overall.
As we continue our work supporting Native communities, let’s not forget the powerful impact our language programs have not only on preserving languages, but on supporting children’s educational attainment, self-confidence, sense of identity, and connection to the past.
Megan Kauffmann is an Impact Evaluator with the Administration for Native Americans. Learn more about ANA’s Native Languages Program.