Education | Opinion

Delphine Red Shirt: We can't always blame others for Native language losses

Delphine Red Shirt. Photo by Rich Luhr

Is it right to keep blaming boarding schools?
By Delphine Red Shirt
Lakota Country Times Columnist

When I hear people from the Pine Ridge reservation, who grew up in the 1970's talk about the perils of boarding schools, I have to wonder what they are talking about?

Sometime after the visit of Robert Kennedy in the late 1960's to Pine Ridge everything changed. Things got "kinder" on one level and harder on another.

My oldest brother, who attended both the Pine Ridge boarding school and later Red Cloud, switched schools because of bullying from other children. He was thriving at the end of his boarding school years at Red Cloud Indian School, then Holy Rosary Mission. He was fluent in his language and was a leader at school. He graduated in the early 1970's which meant that he was in boarding school in the late 1960's. When he came home, after a week at school, everyone at home, spoke Lakota.

I recently watched a film produced at Sinte Gleska University, titled, "We Are a Horse Nation," about the Lakota people healing through the renewed interest in using sunka waken for healing. The connection to well-being through cultural practice is an effective message.

An even stronger message is the use of language to heal. In the film, I recognized one of the speakers, someone who never attended boarding school and who grew up in the 1970's, talk about the traumas of losing one's language because of boarding schools. The comments from that one individual are misleading. Because in the 1970's if you didn't know the language, it was because your parents or caretakers actively decided not to teach you.

By the 1970's, not speaking your language, had very little to do with being punished for speaking the language. In fact, it was in the late 1960's that the boarding schools on the Pine Ridge reservation seemed to change for the better; no one was being punished especially by 1970 for speaking the language. It was at this time, also that tribal colleges were being founded and they took an active role in teaching the Lakota language as did the best boarding schools.

We as Lakota people kept meticulous winter counts, on our own history, and issues like the period of time when boarding schools were actively used to colonize us need to be recorded. We need to go back to doing that; to keep track of historic events as meticulously as we used to before the reservation era; and not give in to outsider's descriptions and generalizations on why we may not be speaking the Lakota language. Most likely it was either a grandparent in the 1970's, or in the 1980's or later; or a parent who stopped speaking the language for whatever the reason; not all stemmed from boarding school experiences.

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It is true that Indian boarding schools throughout the U.S. tried their best in the first half of the twentieth century, to keep children from speaking their native languages, but never fully succeeded; especially among some of our parents who attended boarding schools, like my mother, who attended Holy Rosary mission on the Pine Ridge reservation. My grandparent, and my mother, my uncles, and their off-spring were and are still fluent in the language. It was a conscious decision they made to speak it at home. I thank them for that.

We need to start telling our own history in a straight-forward manner so that we don't confuse the youth in their on-going struggles. The key thing to remember is that language is culture and culture is language and it is their connection that keeps our Lakota people alive and well. If we keep blaming others, we will never take responsibility for what is in front of us, the wakanyeja kin henna, who need to learn their culture through language.

(Delphine Red Shirt can be reached at

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