Thursday, April 17, 2008

Leonard's dream: Lakota Circle Village

A friend from high school – Leonard Little Finger – is about to retire for a second time. But you wouldn’t know it by the ambitious project he’s pursuing near his Oglala, South Dakota home.

First, he retired as CEO of the Indian Health Service hospital at Pine Ridge, but that was some 18 years ago. Then he went back to school to get a teaching certificate and has taught school ever since, but he’ll retire this spring – from teaching, that is.

Leonard will likely be devoting his full effort toward fruition of a dream: Lakota Circle Village. At the core of the village will be a language school that will use immersion techniques to teach the Lakota language to children who are losing touch with their culture, largely due to the loss of their ancestral language.

I first knew Leonard as a high school student some 42 years ago in Chadron, Nebraska, where he graduated in 1958. Leonard and I played on the Cardinal football team, and I still remember my amazement at how such a quiet and soft-spoken student could be such an energetic football player. In retrospect, his pervasive high-energy, low-profile demeanor may be key to his success.
Leonard and I shared a common gridiron fate: we both lost some permanent teeth in pursuit of the pigskin.

But that was likely one of the few things we had in common. Leonard was Lakota Sioux and came from South Dakota to attend high school in Chadron. Unlike the few other American Indian students I knew in our school – kids who seemed isolated and perhaps intimidated by their surroundings – Leonard Finger, as we knew him – participated in a full range of school activities and excelled academically. After he graduated and headed for college, it would be nearly three decades before out paths would cross again.

By the late 1980s, I was Deputy Director of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, and Leonard was Administrator of the Indian Health Service at Pine Ridge. He had agreed to serve on our Friends of Public Broadcasting Board of Directors. Within just a few years, I left South Dakota and Leonard finished his term on the Friends Board.

Then recently, on Good Friday, I had a good experience. I was shopping at Sam’s in Rapid City – as was Leonard – and we saw each other in the aisle. Despite the years that had gone by, we immediately recognized one another and had a short but delightful conversation. I was able to meet Leonard’s wife and one of his sons. Even during that short visit, Leonard’s vision for the Lakota Circle Village was readily apparent. Read more about it on the Lakota Village Circle web site.

Actually, that vision is becoming reality. One of the benefactors to the project is German rock superstar Peter Maffay, who has earmarked earnings from one of his music CD releases to help build the school, which is now complete. I admire Maffay for recognizing the importance of language in retaining cultural traditions. Ironically, I’ve tried to learn German as a way of connecting with my German-Russian heritage. Alas, despite earning a minor in German at college, I never had the benefit of language immersion. I have little doubt that a better knowledge of my ancestral language would help me better understand and appreciate my heritage.

Of course, the issue is more critical for the Lakota children, whose ancestors have inhabited this region of South Dakota for centuries, and the obstacles in the way of their pursuit of happiness are many.

Leonard Little Finger knows his way around the Rez…..and around the world. He has been a presenter to the United Nations Draft Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous People in Geneva, Switzerland. He has also spoken at the Bundestag (German parliament) in Bonn, Germany. Thankfully, he cherishes his roots and is committed to helping future generations know theirs. I am proud to call him a friend.

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