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Why We Decided to Pay Our Citizens to Learn Our Language

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

As the economic development arm of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, REDCO may not be the obvious leader to combat a language crisis, however we are redefining the idea of “wealth” from a modern Lakota perspective. It is REDCO’s view that true wealth does not lie in financial gain or material belongings but in our cultural perpetuity.

Today, in partnership with our sister organization REDCO, we announced the creation of Lakolya Waoniya, a program that will create full-time jobs for Sicangu citizens who are willing to dedicate themselves to becoming fluent Lakota speakers.

It’s an idea that has been discussed for a long time and we’re excited to bring it into reality. But why focus on language? Why not use the money to build a movie theater or restaurant?

Simply put: Our language is our wealth. Without our language, we would be unable to pray or hold our ceremonies. Stories that have been passed on for generations would be lost. Our culture as we know it would cease to exist.

Our Lakota language has been spoken since time immemorial and is intrinsic to our culture, stories, and lifeways. In the late 1800s, the US Government began a decades-long campaign to eradicate Indigenous culture through federal policies that restricted religious and cultural freedom. These policies – including Indian Boarding Schools – punished Native people for speaking our languages.

The US government spent billions of dollars on these efforts, and an equal amount of investment and intentionality will be required to restore our cultural practices. We are stepping up and taking the lead through a unique approach that views language preservation not as a quaint, “feel good” activity but as something that is essential to the wellbeing and prosperity of our communities.

The policies aimed at “killing the Indian to save the man” were largely successful (so much so that Hitler saw them as a model) and have resulted in many Native languages – including Lakota – being critically endangered.

But we are still here.

It is estimated that of the nearly 200,000 Lakota people alive today, fewer than 2,000 are fluent Lakota speakers. A survey on Rosebud identified on two fluent speakers under the age of 30, and none under the age of 18.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added an additional layer of urgency to the issue. Nearly all fluent Lakota speakers are over the age of 65, which is a demographic that is particularly vulnerable to the virus. Several fluent speakers have made their journey to the Spirit World over the past year and half, so even the most recent survey data overstates the number of fluent speakers.

The Lakota Language will become functionally extinct within a generation if bold action is not taken. REDCO and Sicangu CDC are committed to leading that action and restoring hope that the language – and associated stories and knowledge -- will live on for future generations.

That is why we are launching Lakolya Waoniya, a program that will pay members of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate a full-time salary for three years to immerse themselves in the language and become fluent. We are reclaiming our power and agency and improving the ability of our citizens to create a better life. We’re once again showing our resiliency and saying loud and proud, “We are Lakota and we are still here.”

Survey data has shown that an overwhelming majority of tribal citizens want to learn the language and support revitalization efforts but are not able to commit the time and energy to doing it themselves due to various barriers. The most common barrier is lack of time, due to working a full-time job and attending to other commitments. This program eliminates that burden for learners, allowing them to dedicate themselves to mastering the language, just as they would dedicate them to any other full-time job.

The first three years of the program will be funded through a generous one-time philanthropic gift from an anonymous REDCO partner. The investment will cover the cost of a full-time manager of the program, a full-time Lakota Language teacher, salaries for seven language learners, curriculum materials, as well as the construction of a headquarters that will provide classroom and community space for the program.

Understandably, this announcement will be met with numerous questions: What will the salary be for learners? How will you determine who is selected? What curriculum will be used? How will you ensure accountability for the learners? Can I participate and keep my current job?

Rest assured, we are working out all those details and will share them with community members as soon as possible! We will be speaking with elders and current fluent speakers to get their input and recommendations to address those – and many other – questions.

In the meantime, we are hiring two full-time positions to implement the program. The first is a Project Manager to finalize the program development and oversee the execution of the project. Candidates for this position must be highly organized and dedicated to the project but need not be fluent Lakota speakers. They will have the opportunity to participate in the program with the intent of becoming fluent, and will be eligible for REDCO’s generous benefits package, in addition to a competitive salary.

The second position is for a Lakota Language Educator. Candidates for this position must be fluent Lakota speakers and must demonstrate a commitment to teaching the language to others. Visit our Careers page for links to apply.

The headquarters for Lakolya Waoniya will be located at the site of Keya Wakpala Woicageyapi, with construction set to begin no later than Spring of 2022. The gathering space will be the first structure built on the 600-acre development site which will be home to mixed-use buildout that will include housing, commercial space, and recreation areas. In addition to housing the language program, the home will be used as a model home and proof of concept for future housing development at Keya Wakpala.

Stay up to date on the project by visiting and following us on social media, as both REDCO (Instagram and Facebook) and Sicangu CDC (Instagram and Facebook) will share updates.

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