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.
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.
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.”