Tom Red Bird is 61 years old and he eats macaroni and cheese with Elmer’s Glue on his fingers, just like a 3-year-old.
Red Bird is one of the remaining people in the world who can speak Lakota, an indigenous language spoken by Hunkpapa Sioux since time unknown.
He spends his days in a large airy room with green plants in the windows among 10 boys and girls, speaking to them only in the ancient language of their ancestors.
Outside the classroom door is a sign with the word “English” stamped out in a red circle.
Other than the English they jabber among themselves, these little ones hear and speak Lakota with Red Bird and the three instructional aides in the room.
Red Bird speaks it fast and fluently since his own childhood on the Cheyenne Indian Reservation south of Standing Rock. The aides speak it slowly. They, too, are learning as they go.
The children speak it enthusiastically, aided with flash cards or art projects made with glue and cotton balls to learn words for rain and lightning.
Their success wrapping their tongues around these new words is applauded and happiness shows on their faces when they get it right
It is an experimental program at Sitting Bull Community College in the Kids Kampus building on Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
It is an interesting hybrid of specialized day care and a language immersion project. Lunch, playtime and a nap are part of the deal.
“The reason I came here is I want to save my language. It’s precious to me. When there came a chance to teach, I jumped at this,” Red Bird said.
He estimates maybe one-third of the reservation is fluent in Lakota. The death of each elder diminishes that number; 10 years ago 80 percent were fluent, he said.
The Lakota language is well documented from the early work of missionaries and later revisions by linguistic experts and tribal members.
Red Bird participated in a Lakota dictionary project, a massive tome with entries both in Lakota to English and English to Lakota. He says he and other Lakota speakers regularly gather to add new words to make it a living, contemporary language.
A recent addition, for example: “Wounspe omnaye;” the words mean “stored language” in Lakota and describe a laptop computer.
Those new words can be a challenge, he says. One suggestion among the group was to describe venetian blinds, in Lakota.
In the classroom, the children are far from the subtleties of window coverings.
They have been immersed since September and now have a Lakota vocabulary of about 50 words.
They are basic words for the primary colors, the elements of water and clouds, simple foods, and directions.
Sacheen Whitetail Cross, who earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks, is director of the language immersion program.
Federal grants fund the project and the initial training for the classroom instructors.
She said the program is licensed as a day care. Parents pay $88 a week — just as they would with day care — to have their child enrolled.
As a student, it was her dream to incorporate language into her work back home on Standing Rock.
“It’s who we are and it’s how we know each other,” she said.
Ideally, kids would start even younger and stay immersed for at least several more years.
The project is new and could expand, depending on success and funding, she said.
Children in a language program do better in school because their brains are more fully utilized and they have more self confidence, she said.
Sarah Jumping Eagle and Chase Iron Eyes live in Bismarck and enrolled their daughter, Azilya Iron Eyes, in the program. Jumping Eagle said it’s worth whatever it takes to get their daughter there every day.
“I really see in her hope, now. We have a drug and alcohol free home and she’s learning the language and the ceremonies. We’re breaking the cycle; that’s the hope. We’re willing to get up at the crack of dawn to get her there,” she said.
Red Bird said Lakota is a language and a way of life lost. Its speakers would be different people if it were their only language.
“They would be more respectful. The language is more sacred with core values. There are no curse words. In the language, it all revolves around the family,” he said. He said his own great-grandson, 4, listens and behaves when spoken to in Lakota; to English he closes his ears.
For now, Red Bird is pleased to spend days among these pint-sized Lakota learners with their bright eyes and shiny dark hair, helping both the instructors who have prepared lessons and language materials, as well as the children.
“These little ones we’ve got here, they’re the new breed, filling the gap between my age and people in their 40s and 50s who are not fluent,” he said.
Cross said she appreciates the behavior that is embedded in the language, the acts of helpfulness and service encoded within it.
Her work as director is about the paperwork back in her office, but that isn’t where her heart is.
“Oh my God, it’s so much fun in there. I just want to be with the kids,” she said.