Lakota Language Opens Up Big Worlds at Pine Ridge High School | Education
When Tristiana Brewer studies Lakota language and culture at Pine Ridge High School with her teacher, Will Peters, she scrutinizes the small details. Then, before long, larger worlds begin to open up.
âMy favorite part is learning the language and then seeing all the stories behind the language,â she said.
Brewer is a junior at Pine Ridge High School and a registered member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, just like Peters. His love for the finer parts of language and his appreciation for the worlds behind words are qualities Peters also described on a recent afternoon in high school.
Peters, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, is a teacher of Lakota studies at Pine Ridge High School and a sponsor of the Pine Ridge Flute Society.
âI’m not starting with stories,â he said, referring to the Lakota language and culture class. âI start with a basic knowledge of the Lakota language. “
This includes, he said, careful consideration of the vowels, consonants and sounds indicated by accents. Her students resume the in-depth analysis, using words such as “throaty” with ease in conversation.
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âWe are moving forward in the origin stories of the Lakota people while incorporating the Lakota language,â he said. âFrom there, there is a story for almost everything I teach.
Drums, flutes, songs – all have origin stories, the kind of tales behind the individual words that Brewer described. And for Peters, the participation of students like Brewer is vital.
âIn my lessons, I encourage students to express themselves, whether in the form of a question or a statement,â he said. âYouth voices matter – a lot. They matter to me, they should matter to my people, they should matter to this country. Unless we all plan to live forever and be in charge of everything, these young people will be the only ones. “
Peters teaches the Lakota language and culture, as well as the Lakota arts. The Lakota arts class, he said, includes beadwork, music, and many other topics and activities.
âEverything is intertwined,â he said, âjust like the canvas on a dream catcher. “
Class activities create emotional reactions, often closely related to intellectual reactions. John Henry Long, a student at Pine Ridge High School and one of Peters’ students, said he was drawn to the beadwork process for its calming influence.
âIt allows me to take my mind off things and relax,â said Long, registered member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. âAnd there is no stress in that. “
Brewer also noted the richness of the process, including learning the “colors in the four directions” and the meanings behind them.
Peters began teaching at Pine Ridge High School in 1996 and took a hiatus in 2004 when he was elected tribal council representative. He returned to high school in 2008 and has been teaching there ever since.
âI couldn’t come back fast enough,â he said. âIt’s so much easier to work with young people than adults. “
The topic of young people and their importance sends Peters’ minds deep into the Lakota language and history, and far into the future.
âI say to these young people, when we learn a language, there is a word to say where they are at in this life right now,â he said. âFor young women, they are called ‘Wikoskalaka’, which means young women. For young men, they are known as “Koskalaka”.
The elders, he said, call both young women and young men “Wakanyeja.”
âWakanyeja means ‘sacred beings’,â he said. âAnd I always remind them of that. They are sacred beings.
Peters stressed the importance of teaching the Lakota language and culture.
âThere have been things like colonization and forced assimilation,â he said. “These things have given rise to many families who are unfamiliar with the Lakota culture.”
As Peters spoke he continually gravitated towards reflection and celebration of young people. He noted some of his own accomplishments, mentioning that he is “a NAMMY Award-winning singer-songwriter,” in reference to the Native American Music Awards. But he quickly returned to his students, describing the Pine Ridge Flute Society, which he advised and helped start several years ago.
âMy students are award winning flautists at NAMMY,â he said. âThe Pine Ridge Flute Society, with their debut recording, won the NAMMY for Best Flautist of the Year (2018). Nine members of the Flute Society were comfortable enough to record.
Other members of society also produced powerful music, he explained, but with the descent of COVID-19, the ability to perform and promote music suddenly disappeared – at least for a while.
Peters said he grew up with music, especially with traditional Lakota songs that involved the drum.
âLater in my youth, one of my older brothers had a rock band,â he said. âHe was a singer, and I kind of got drawn to that kind of music and I self-taught the drums, following my older brother’s lessons.
At 14, he learned to play the guitar with the help of his brother and other musicians, âwhile maintaining my involvement in Lakota musicâ.
Peters said he has long felt drawn to a range of music, from traditional Lakota music to contemporary rock.
“I am convinced that every form of music allows for expression – for self-expression,” he said. “And I dare say that’s why people listen to music, whatever the genre, because the artist is expressing something relevant.”
Peters grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation and relishes his decision to stay and continue living there.
âI am a long time resident of this place, and I will be buried here,â he said. âThe world has nothing to offer me that I don’t already have here. Some people mistakenly believe that those of us who live here are trapped here. That we can’t get out of this. I live here by choice.
âI have three college degrees and I know I can do it anywhere,â continued Peters, who is also a state-certified Lakota language teacher. âI know I can compete with anyone out there. But my choice is to stay here with my people, especially these young people, and to help empower them. “
Peters didn’t object to the young people deciding to move elsewhere, but he expressed the deep certainty that Pine Ridge is his home. He remembered the advice of the elders he knew as a child.
âWhen I was little they told us to educate ourselves and help our people,â he said. âSo I am what the elders of my time passed on to me. “