Language, Culture and Food Come Together at Lakota Waldorf School

Students learn to speak and understand the Lakota language through gardening, food preparation, and learning about traditional Lakota plants, sustainability, and ecology.

Students learn to speak and understand the Lakota language through gardening, food preparation, and learning about traditional Lakota plants, sustainability, and ecology.












If you’re a Lakota child born in South Dakota, you can now find a place to belong, where your culture and language are fostered, creating a Lakota identity that will help you thrive. This is possible thanks to the Lakota Waldorf School, formed over 26 years ago at a time when Lakota children never had such an option. Now, with its latest project funded through First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), the school is bringing culture and language to the understanding, production and awareness of food, strengthening Lakota identity and improving health outcomes.

The Need for Lakota Waldorf School

The Lakota Waldorf School serves the children of the Pine Ridge Reservation living in or near the town of Kyle and outlying districts. Isabel Stadnick, development director and one of the founders of the school, explains that children here are among the most vulnerable, disadvantaged children in the country. Poverty is high, and as a social determinant of health, it has resulted in epidemic proportions of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease on the Reservation. According to Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation, life expectancy is only 47 years for men and 52 years for women, and the teenage suicide rate is 150% higher than the U.S. national average.

While the causes for these statistics are broad and deep-rooted, one reason stems from the insufficient culturally appropriate education available to Lakota children, says Stadnick. Noting the high dropout rate of Lakota students, Stadnick, her husband Robert, and a group of parents saw that the local public schools were not designed for Native children and the way they best learn. In addition, Lakota identity was not fostered or encouraged. As a result of both, performance among Native children was lacking.
“We said, if something is not good, then you have to change it,” Stadnick explained. From there, the parents mobilized, and the concept of Lakota Waldorf School took hold.

Learning with Head, Hand, and Heart

Stadnick explains that the parent group was made up of individuals from education and the community, and together, they agreed that children of a different culture need a different curriculum. Curriculum must be understandable and must reflect the essence of the people. Further, the approach must strengthen children’s self-identity, which includes their culture, ceremonial practices and their language.
Knowing this, the parents set out to explore different approaches to education and the one that resonated was Waldorf.

“In public school, learning is linear. You learn one thing, then the next, in a subsequent fashion,” says Stadnick, “But in the Waldorf method, learning is circular and story based.”

Stadnick explains that Waldorf bases curriculum on the development of the child, focusing on three capacities: thinking, feeling, and doing. For example, in Waldorf schools, teaching facts, numbers and places might be done through a story. Then the students might participate in an activity, conveying that story through clay, paper mâché, or drawing. It becomes an experience that creates a feeling, which translates into greater learning.

“It is learning with head, hand, and heart,” added adds Stadnick. “It connects and involves the students in a deeper way. Here, they learn how to apply their newfound knowledge in real life, which gives them a higher success rate.”

Stadnick says that this approach is very much in line with the Lakota culture, and the story-telling technique is how Lakota elders pass down the heritage. Committed to the Waldorf curriculum, the parents first formed a Lakota kindergarten. From there, the group formed a 501(c)3, and now offers K-8 classes. Currently at capacity, the school has 46 students and is in the process of seeking funding for a larger school bus to be able to transport 60 plus students.

Through the Lakota Waldorf School, kids are given every opportunity to learn a strong cultural identity and reverence for the heritage.

Through the Lakota Waldorf School, kids are given every opportunity to learn a strong cultural identity and reverence for the heritage.

Immersed in Language, Enriched by Culture

More than a Waldorf-based school, the school is an educational resource that integrates Lakota culture with a large emphasis on language. This is where funding from First Nations has played an important role.

Core to the school’s design is Lakota language immersion. All children begin each day with a sacred Lakota verse. They learn vocabulary, numbers, and concepts by singing, reciting, and having interactive dialogue. Language is not a class here-and-there, but a full immersion process, in which children learn language the natural way — by ear and by speaking. By integrating the Waldorf approach with a focus on Lakota language, the school empowers Lakota children to create positive futures for themselves and their communities.

“We see one of the challenges that students have is low self-esteem and low self-confidence. So this is where we put a strong emphasis,” Stadnick commenteds.
Kids at Lakota Waldorf School are given every opportunity to learn a strong cultural identity and reverence for the heritage, acquire a solid foundation for Lakota language, and gain the academic, social, and practical skills to thrive as Native people.
“Culture and language are major components of self-esteem and self-advocacy,” says Stadnick. “Research has proven that children who grow up with a strong identity are more successful — in school, life and higher education.”

In 2019, the school received a First Nations grant through the Native Language Immersion Initiative, which aims to build the capacity of and directly support Native American language-immersion and culture-retention programs. With this funding the school will expand its current classroom language program and its school gardening program, teaching students how to speak and understand the Lakota language through gardening, food preparation, and learning about traditional Lakota plants, sustainability, and ecology.

This makes a valuable tool for experiential learning. As the project develops, students throughout the school are taking part in the classes, making use of a school garden, and hearing directly from Lakota-fluent elders and Lakota-learning teachers. Parents are being engaged as volunteers, and students are presenting their knowledge of Lakota words to the community, which raises awareness of Native plants, culture, and sustainable foods.

“Children learn easy and fast, and eating healthy meals is something we do every day,” she says.

Moreover, the students are learning through imagination and by doing. “We are surrounded by plants, but we cannot name them in Lakota,” she explains. “But through the project they can learn 10 new plants every month, and that’s something they can use every day.”

Further, Stadnick notes, “If you have an experience planting potatoes, and you learn the word for potatoes, right there you have a connection to it. That’s a piece of the language that lives on.”

While the project is just beginning, it is laying the groundwork for the future. Children are finding more opportunities to use the language, and the community is gaining a food source, and ultimately even a source of revenue, as food can be grown organically and then sold locally. And, in the long-term, it is hoped that the access to Native grown food can make a dent in the staggering diabetes and obesity rates that have plagued this community.
Using gardening, students learn language and culture through head, hand and heart.

Using gardening, students learn language and culture through head, hand and heart.

Creating the Future of Lakota

Stadnick acknowledges that the road ahead is a long one, but their work is a building block. Through the Language Expansion program, the school is focusing on involving parents, training more teachers, and increasing community involvement. The simple act of labeling a garden in the Lakota language is creating an opportunity to share, and every opportunity adds up as a strategy to retain the language and the culture.

“Waldorf is not a concept, it’s a tool to infuse a rich and very old culture into the future,”  Stadnick says. With the support of First Nations, this community is strengthening this resource, training more teachers, and finding more ways to create the best outcomes for Lakota children. “It’s the most important aspect. They need the identity and culture – just like they need food and love.”

By Amy Jakober

Bishop Paiute Expands Nutrition Education

Amaranth seeds

Amaranth seeds

For a 2016-2017 project, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) selected 21 tribes and organizations across 12 states to receive grants to support nutrition education, especially among individuals who receive food under the USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. Among those selected, under generous funding from the Walmart Foundation, was the Bishop Paiute Tribe of Bishop, California.

Walmart Fndtn report D(This story was originally published in the recent “Outcomes Under the Nutrition Education for Native Communities Project” report that First Nations prepared for the Walmart Foundation. The full report is available for free on the First Nations Knowledge Center at

The Bishop Paiute Tribe’s Food Sovereignty Program (FSP) has been working to expand its garden-based nutrition education projects to encourage healthy food and lifestyle choices by partnering with the Bishop Elementary School (BES), the Bishop Indian Head Start (BIHS), and the Inyo County Health and Human Services Department and its food initiative programs.

With the funding provided by First Nations and the Walmart Foundation, the Food Sovereignty program, now in its third year, worked to expand the tribe’s work and community outreach.

Families Learn Together

FoodCorps Service Member Shanae Vega works with Head Start youth participants in a hands-on cooking activity as part of the Bishop Paiute Tribe's Food Sovereignty Program nutrition education classes.

FoodCorps Service Member Shanae Vega works with Head Start youth participants in a hands-on cooking activity as part of the Bishop Paiute Tribe’s Food Sovereignty Program nutrition education classes.

“We focused on increasing garden-based and nutrition education offerings for the fifth-grade classes at BES, and offered similar food related activities to BIHS students,” said Jen Schlaich, Food Program Specialist for the Food Sovereignty Program. “Additionally, in collaboration with our FoodCorps Service Member Shanae Vega, FSP staff held an eight-week nutrition education class for Head Start families with hands-on cooking activities for both parents and children.”

Each week the class featured a new fruit or vegetable in recipes that the FSP cooked in advanced to share with participants as a taste-test. Parents then went through the preparation steps for the featured recipe.

“BIHS already had a nutrition curriculum. However, in the evening classes, which involved both parents and their children, we were able to integrate foods that students were learning about during the day into their home lives,” said Schlaich.

Roasted beet salad is prepared as part of a hands-on cooking activity for Head Start parents participating the Bishop Paiute Tribe's Food Sovereignty Program nutrition education classes.

Roasted beet salad is prepared as part of a hands-on cooking activity for Head Start parents participating the Bishop Paiute Tribe’s Food Sovereignty Program nutrition education classes.

While the parents were trying out the new recipes, the kids were engaged in simple cooking activities that incorporated the same fruit or vegetable that their parents were learning about. The class ended with a fun activity for the whole family such as painting clay pots and planting cooking herbs or designing a fruit basket to take home to an elder. Also, the parents who attended the class were able to take home the meal that had been prepared in class that day.

Plants Impact the Community

While the youngest students were cooking up fun at the Head Start kitchens, the middle school students were busy outside in the gardens tending their own growing plots, and learning about a plant not indigenous to their area. In the Fall of 2016, as part of a farmer-to-farmer cultural exchange supported by The Garden’s Edge, Quachuu Aloom, a Guatemalan Farmers’ Cooperative, visited the FSP gardens to teach community members about one of their important traditional foods – amaranth.

Bishop Indian Head Start youth processing amaranth at the Food Sovereignty Program's garden near the Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center.

Bishop Indian Head Start youth processing amaranth at the Food Sovereignty Program’s garden near the Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center.

Both the fifth-graders and the Head Start students visited the garden to learn about how to harvest and process amaranth, in addition to cooking with it and using it to make crafts. “We puffed the amaranth using a hot skillet and used it to make honey ‘granola’ bars that the students were able to taste. The seeds can be used in stews, ground into flour, or eaten like porridge. It is also a wonderful natural dye which the students were able to experiment with when making holiday gifts from plants to bring home to their families. The amaranth became so popular with the students that the small health food store in town ran out of amaranth. Community members requested seeds to plant along their fences as a usable barrier, and amaranth seed packets were distributed to those who were interested in it,” said Schlaich.



Other foods planted and harvested in the FSP’s family-demonstration garden included: Mohawk red corn courtesy of Rowen White from Akwesasne and founder of Sierra Seeds, tomatoes, strawberries, potatoes, rainbow chard, leeks, radishes, acorn squash, herbs and flowers useful for medicinal purposes or for crafts, currants, gooseberries, beans, peas and bamboo.

Nutrition Education from the Ground Up

Shanae Vega, a Bishop Paiute tribal member, worked with FSP as the FoodCorps service member and served as the garden education mentor. Vega would provide support with the nutrition education lessons during the day with the Head Start students, and later in the evenings was involved in the eight-week cooking series for the Head Start families.

Bananas rolled in amaranth

Bananas rolled in amaranth

Schlaich says Vega was excited to be involved and connecting with community members around garden-based and nutrition education, especially with the kids. At every cooking class Vega was surrounded by kids, who were wondering what she was going to help them cook or what they might get to taste-test next. Vega was also excited to work with all of the fifth-grade classes in Bishop that included students from the reservation and from the City of Bishop. She also worked with all children at BIHS and their families from the reservation.

All of the project’s efforts, including the partnership with FoodCorps, provided over 127 BES students with 10 hours of nutrition education, and nearly 85 BIHS students with six plus hours of garden-based education. Schlaich and Vega worked to get the information out to the community through a variety of ways, via the tribal newspaper, KBPT Bishop Paiute tribal radio station, and through their partnerships with BES, BIHS, and the Inyo County Health and Human Services Department.

Schlaich says the partnerships, and the funding support from First Nations were key to their success. “We never would have had the resources for the eight-week nutrition education cooking classes without the support from First Nations. It was definitely a huge support that made the garden-based and nutrition education components of the Food Sovereignty Program much stronger. We’re excited and motivated to continue with cooking demonstrations during the third year of our community market.”

By Mary K. Bowannie, First Nations Communications Officer

Cocopah Tribe Engages & Empowers Boys & Young Men

Young Cocopah student during CPR training. Photo courtesy of Cocopah Indian Tribe

For more than a decade, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) has had a positive and lasting impact on Native youth. In 2002, First Nations launched the Native Youth and Culture Fund (NYCF) to enhance culture and language awareness, and promote youth empowerment, leadership and community building.

Recently, First Nations unveiled a new grant initiative that reflects our growing commitment to Native youth and youth development: Advancing Positive Paths for Native American Boys and Young Men (Positive Paths). Positive Paths, created in partnership with NEO Philanthropy and and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, seeks to reduce social and economic disparities for Native American males.

Studies suggest that Native American males are more likely to be absent from school, suspended, expelled or repeat a grade. However, a growing body of research indicates that suspensions and expulsions are not always the most effective means of reaching and disciplining these students.

Often, these punitive measures deprive students of the opportunity to develop the skills and strategies they need to succeed. Positive Paths supports innovative programs that emphasize alternative approaches to punitive measures that have a negative impact on academic achievement and graduation rates.

For years, the Cocopah Tribe of Arizona relied upon the public school system for enforcing truancy laws for its students. This approach yielded little to no results, especially among male students. Educators decided to take a new approach that emphasized engaging and empowering Native American boys and men.

In 2014, First Nations awarded the Cocopah Tribe of Arizona $50,000 through the Positive Path grant initiative to restructure its truancy program. The tribe’s new program has reduced truancy rates among Native American males by nearly 75 percent. As a result, student grades and graduation rates have increased significantly, as much as 25 to 50 percent.

The Credit Recovery and Career Exploration (CRACE) program links at-risk male youth to the people and resources they need to recover academic credits, to pursue future career opportunities and develop leadership skills. Students enroll in online classes and work with tutors to successfully complete their courses and graduate.

Students participate in mock trial. Photo courtesy of Cocopah Indian Tribe

Additionally, the program introduces student to careers that have the potential to strengthen and empower their tribal community. Since starting the CRACE program, participating Cocopah students have undergone CPR training, participated in mock trial exercises, and explored career opportunities in medicine and law enforcement.

Students participate in regular meetings with staff and instructors to provide feedback and discuss future plans. During the first meeting, education department staff members noted that many students seemed unsure about their future plans and goals. Over the past year, many students have narrowed down their focus, applying to college or preparing to enter the workforce.

Additionally, staff members have noted that this program helps instill students with a sense of pride in themselves and their community. One education department staff noted, “This program has helped make our students, their families and the community stronger. The program has already shown we can make a real positive difference in our students’ lives. This year we have had a dozen participating students make a 180-degree turnaround in regard to their grades, school attendance and personal attitudes.”

CRACE has received support from the tribe and the tribal community. According to the education department, tribal council members often act as mentors to at-risk youth. They also note that the tribe has recently passed a resolution that makes it mandatory for every tribal member to receive a high school diploma or GED to be eligible for benefits. This resolution sends a strong message to students: education is the key to strengthening and empowering their communities.

The Cocopah Tribe of Arizona’s CRACE program demonstrates the success of alternative techniques in inspiring students to achieve their education and take personal responsibility for their journey. CRACE brochures send the message loud and clear to students who utilize the service: “Your dreams are within reach. You just have to graduate high school to realize them.”

By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Program Coordinator

Protecting Native Money: How to Avoid Financial Fraud

Financial fraud is far too common in Native American communities, and is a growing problem with the recent increase in tribal lawsuit settlements with the federal government. First Nations Development Institute has partnered with the FINRA Investor Education Foundation to produce a pamphlet that can help people protect themselves from common financial fraud techniques.

Over the past five years more than $1 billion in tribal trust settlements have been reached, including the Keepseagle and Cobell class-action legal settlements. Many of these settlements have resulted in payments to individual tribal members, which makes them targets for fraudsters who follow a simple strategy: They go where the money is. The FINRA Investor Education Foundation is collaborating with First Nations to help reach the recipients of these trust fund settlements, as well as other tribal members who may be targeted for their wealth.

The pamphlet, titled “Fighting Fraud 101: Smart Tips for Investors,” is designed to appeal to individuals, members of tribal investment committees, and retirees. It lists some common fraud tactics, such as the “Social Consensus” tactic that lead you to believe that your savvy friends and neighbors may have already invested in a product. With the “Source Credibility” tactic, a fraudster may falsely suggest they have worked with other tribal investment committees or helped people manage lump sum payouts from tribal lawsuits to try to gain trust. The pamphlet also teaches several techniques to avoid being taken advantage of and how to report suspicious behavior.

“We are honored to be able to collaborate with several national partners, including the FINRA Investor Education Foundation and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, to provide financial education for tribal members,” said First Nations President Michael Roberts.

First Nations representatives Sarah Dewees and Shawn Spruce spoke at an October 29, 2014, Federal Trade Commission event titled “Fraud Affects All Communities.” The purpose of this meeting was to highlight the range of consumer, financial and investor fraud techniques that affect diverse communities.

“A lot of people aren’t aware that financial fraud is a big problem on many Indian reservations,” said Sarah Dewees, senior director of research, policy and asset-building programs. “I am happy we have been able to continue our work with the FINRA Investor Education Foundation and the Office of the Special Trustee to help community members protect themselves against financial fraud.”

A copy of the pamphlet can be viewed in First Nations’ online Knowledge Center at  To order printed copies, you can email

By Sarah Dewees, First Nations Senior Director of Research, Policy and Asset-Building Programs

Collaboration & Partnerships Expand in Urban Indian Program

Jay Grimm, executive director of the Denver Indian Center, talks about the project

The Denver Indian Center, Inc. and the Denver Indian Family Resource Center are partners in the “Building Strong American Indian/Alaska Native Communities” effort, which is a three-year project that is funded by The Kresge Foundation.

As grant recipients in First Nations’ 2013-2014 Urban Indian Organization program, their project strategy is to improve and expand collaborative opportunities for the two organizations, as well as other partner organizations in metropolitan Denver.  They plan to increase participation in new and existing programs, build resources, explore new ways of working together, and enrich communication that creates the most impact.  Proposed activities involve resource development, case management, outreach, marketing, information exchange, database management, and developing best practices.

The National Urban Indian Family Coalition (NUIFC) and First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) are also strategic partners in this project.  The main objective of their partnership is the amplification of services to the grantees to aid in sustainability and growth.  It is the right business match.  We are committed to the design and co-management of the program with open access to information, networks, resources and skills.  Our tasks are to deliver technical assistance and training along with assessments, site visits, media development, and information-sharing forums.

Partnerships and collaboration are motivating philosophies at First Nations.  Collaboration builds the Native American nonprofit sector.  It is a process that prompts individuals with diverse interests to share their knowledge and resources to improve outcomes, innovate and enhance decisions.  When we share our expertise we become deeply involved in the design and delivery of outreach, programs, and services.  As partners we solve problems, meet objectives, build support, and utilize our strengths more effectively for greater success.

Under the Kresge project, First Nations and NUIFC also selected two other organizations to receive grants. They are the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland, Oregon, and the Little Earth of United Tribes in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Each of the three projects is receiving a $40,000 grant.

First Nations’ and NUIFC’s overall effort aims to help organizations that work with some of the estimated 78 percent ofAmerican Indians and Alaska Natives who live off reservations or away from tribal villages, and who reflect some of the most disproportionately low social and economic standards in the urban areas in which they reside. Urban Indian organizations are an important support to Native families and individuals, providing cultural linkages as well as a hub for accessing essential services.

To learn more about these organizations and the project, please see the First Nations/NUIFC press release at this link:

By Montoya A. Whiteman, First Nations Senior Program Officer