Lakhol’iyapi Wahohpi: Growing “Fluent Speakers, Sovereign Thinkers”


Lakhol’iyapi Wahohpi: Growing “Fluent Speakers, Sovereign Thinkers”

By Sarah Hernandez, Ph.D., First Nations Communications Officer

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (SRST) and Sitting Bull College (SBC) are leading an effort to revitalize the Dakota and Lakota languages in North and South Dakota.  In 2010, the SRST conducted a community assessment survey and discovered that less than 300 of their tribal members identified themselves as fluent Indigenous language speakers. 
To address these concerns, the tribe partnered with the tribal college to establish Lakhol’iyapi Wahohpi (Lakota Language Nest), a preschool language-immersion program dedicated to teaching the youngest members of the tribe to speak the Dakota and Lakota languages.  Lakhol’iyapi Wahohpi’s mission is to increase the number of Dakota and Lakota language speakers on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and equip tribal students with the knowledge and skills needed to be leaders and more conscientious citizens in their communities. Its vision is: “Fluent Speakers, Sovereign Thinkers.”

Lakhol’iyapi Wahohpi officially opened its doors in September 2012 to a small group of 11 3-year-olds that quickly doubled in size.  In many ways, the Lakhol’iyapi Wahohpi is just like any other preschool where toddlers learn and play with other students.  However, at the Lakhol’iyapi Wahohpi all of the activities – books, games, songs, prayers and even meals – are conducted in the Dakota and Lakota languages. 
For eight hours a day, these preschoolers speak the Lakota language and then often go home at night and share the language with their families.  “Our people are excited to hear kids speaking the language again,” says Nacole Walker, Lakota language instructor and linguist.  "Most people haven’t heard the language since they were kids – even grandparents might not have heard the language since they were children themselves."

Lakhol’iyapi Wahohpi has been a labor of love for Walker, who has been at the preschool since the very beginning and has worn many hats, from instructor to administrator to trainer to curriculum designer and editor.  “I’ve seen all different aspects of the school,” says Walker.  “I’ve watched teachers come and go.  It’s overwhelming to come here and try to learn how to teach the language without any resources.  With this grant, we will be able to create a more coherent curriculum to support our teachers and better serve our students.”

In 2018, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) awarded $90,000 to SBC through its Native Language Immersion Initiative (NLII) to design and edit Lakhol’iyapi Wahohpi’s preschool language curriculum.  Typically, Lakhol’iyapi Wahohpi language teachers spend eight to 10 hours outside of class preparing their lesson plans, which contributes to high staff burnout and turnover.  To ease this burden, SBC will use the NLII grant to hire a full-time curriculum designer and a full-time curriculum editor to create a teacher’s guide that consists of 60+ lesson plans written in both the English and Dakota/Lakota languages. Lesson plans will include instructions and activities that are culturally-relevant and aligned with Pre-K Dakota/Lakota standards.

There are many steps and people involved with developing and implementing language curriculum, says Yuliya Manyakina, Lakhol’iyapi Wahohpi Project Director. The curriculum designer and editor work closely with translators and community members to finalize the curriculum.  Once the curriculum is finalized, trainers will teach teachers how to teach the language, and families how to communicate with their children.
“Creating a coherent curriculum has been a daunting task.  It’s really exciting that at the end of this grant project we will have a comprehensive, culturally grounded, and effectively organized curriculum” says Manyakina.  These efforts will benefit Dakota and Lakota children and their communities for generations to come.

At the end of the grant cycle, Lakhol’iyapi Wahohpi will share its language curriculum with other early childhood centers across North and South Dakota so that other Oceti Ŝakowiŋ tribes will be able to revitalize the Dakota and Lakota languages in their communities.  “This isn’t just a school,” emphasizes Manyakina.  “This is a movement.”  

To learn more about the Lakhol’iyapi Wahohpi or make a donation to the preschool language immersion program, please visit its website at


About the Author

Sarah Hernandez, Ph.D. (Sicangu Lakota) returned to First Nations in 2018 as Communication Officer. She is responsible for helping write and edit First Nations' print and web materials as well as handling other duties.  

Sarah is also an adjunct instructor at the University of Colorado, where she teaches course on American Indian literature and film. She is the Executive Director of the Oak Lake Writers Society, a tribal writing group for Dakota, Lakota and Nakota writers, and is currently revising her dissertation on the Dakota literary tradition into a book manuscript.