Lakota Waldorf School; Lakota language and values form the foundation of this school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

By Madeleine Wuergler

“Wakanyeja unkitawapi ki Lakoliyapi na Lakol ounyanpi ki yuha manipi kte heca.

Our children must walk with the Lakota language and Lakota way of life.”

—a goal of the Lakota Waldorf School


It was in 2007 and again in 2013, that I passed by the Lakota Waldorf School while on a road trip around the beautiful Midwest. On both occasions, the school was closed for the summer. Nevertheless, seeing it made a big impression on me, and I was immediately determined to support the school in any way I could, either through donations or hands-on help. This past September, I had the opportunity to travel to Kyle, South Dakota once again, but this time as a volunteer at the Lakota Waldorf School—the only Waldorf school on an Indian Reservation.

The Lakota Waldorf School is a small school, surrounded by never-ending prairie, in the midst of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe. The tribe’s rich cultural heritage includes war chiefs such as Crazy Horse, American Horse, and Red Cloud, just to name some of them; also medicine men Black Elk, Fools Crow, Black Crow, Big Road, and Kills Ree. Centuries of indigenous genocide and forced relocation have taken a social toll. Pine Ridge is in one of the poorest counties in the United States, with an unemployment rate of 75% to 80%. Many of the local people suffer from severe alcohol and drug abuse; the reservation has the highest infant mortality rate in the United States; and many families have no electricity, telephone service, running water, or sewers, and must use wood-burning stoves to heat their homes.

Despite these statistics, Lakota language and culture are still living. You cannot go to an event on the reservation where a Lakota prayer and song is not included in the festivities. Lakota help one another regularly; it is part of the culture, and what they call being a good relative. It is not uncommon for someone to take the shirt off his back if they feel someone is in need of it. Lakota people have some of the biggest and most extravagant “Give-Aways.” The more you give, the more you will receive; maybe not in material terms, but definitely in karma.  They believe Mitakuye Oyasin: we are all related.

The Lakota Waldorf School's mission is to empower the children through an educational process that emphasizes Lakota language and culture, creativity, positivity, and community. Founded in the mid-1990s by Isabel Stadnick and her husband Robert, a tribal member, and a group of Lakota parents, tribal members currently make up the majority of the school board and teaching faculty.

The sixteen kindergarteners and eight first/second graders that currently make up the Lakota Waldorf School begin their day with the morning verse in the Lakota language, Lakota songs, music, and stories. The curriculum throughout the remainder of the day includes language arts, math, science, and social studies as well as handwork, flute music, painting, drawing and modeling classes, and storytelling.

Lakota language is implemented in the school’s everyday life. It lives in the school through smudging with sage and praying in Lakota; putting a little food plate outside in honor of those who live in the spirit world; singing traditional songs, along with all the nuances of everyday Lakota conversational skills, orthography, and sentence structure.

Much of the reservation is considered a food desert; because of these circumstances, the Lakota Waldorf School is an important support system for the twenty-four children who attend the school. The school provides the children with wholesome meals and sends them home on Friday afternoon with a weekend pack filled with healthful snacks. Each morning, the students are greeted with the wonderful aroma of a healthful breakfast of oatmeal, scrambled eggs from the chickens raised on the school property, or rice pudding with honey and raisins. An organic lunch is prepared with vegetables from the school garden and bison meat from the tribe’s one buffalo herd. All meals are cooked at the school.

Currently, the entire school consists of two small buildings: one that houses the kindergarten, kitchen, and office, and another small building for the first/second grade. To continue supporting students and their families, grades on up through eighth grade will be added in the coming years. Plans are underway to build an additional building to house an expanded kitchen, three or four additional classrooms, and a healthy café shop. A healthy café shop will be a little café where community members can have a healthful lunch or snack, sandwich, and coffee as well as an internet café and gift shop, selling garden products, Lakota art, and a place for tourists to visit in the summer. It will be a source of future revenue for the school. The new building will be a straw-bale structure powered by solar and wind energy. The hope is that the funds for the urgently needed new classroom addition can be raised by early spring 2017. As soon as the funding is available the construction can begin.

Having spent a week working with the students, who are growing up in severe poverty and some in traumatic circumstances, I can personally attest to the positive impact the school has on each of their lives. Not only is the Lakota Waldorf education important for these children, but the support they receive is crucial for their overall well-being. Because the families cannot afford to pay tuition, the school is 100% donation-funded. My sincere hope is that the Lakota Waldorf School will continue to thrive and educate young ones for years to come. And that the school will be able to expand, so more children can benefit from the Waldorf teachings.

Madeleine Wuergler is a handwork teacher at Green Meadow Waldorf School and the Otto Specht School in Spring Valley, New York.



Brief History of the Lakota

The Lakota are part of the Ocheti Sakowin—the Seven Council Fires.

Lakota means “friend”; they are also called Tetonwan. They consist of seven subtribes: the Oglala, Hunkpapa, Sicangu, Oohenunpa, Sihasapa, Itazipco, Minneconjou, who all speak the Lakota language. The name Sioux originates from the Ojibwa word Nadowehsu, meaning snakelike. The Ojibwa were enemies of the Lakota, and French traders shortened the word to Sioux.

In 1840 President Andrew Jackson declared the land West of the Mississippi River officially to be “Indian territory,” and the Mississippi was the border to the Indian Territory. But this declaration was broken shortly after.

The Lakota tribes were the last ones to be confronted with the successive waves of white settlers and military troops in the middle of the nineteenth century when gold was discovered, first in California (1848); then Colorado (1850); and later in the Black Hills, the Paha Sapa, a sacred land for many tribes.

In the years after the discovery of gold, thousands of settlers and gold-seekers flooded the land West of the Mississippi, in search of the yellow metal. The tension broke loose when a Mormon wagon train lost a cow, and she eventually ended up walking into a Lakota camp. The military attacked the Sicangu camp and killed women, children, and men, leaving a horrific massacre behind. This was the beginning of the fight for the last lands in the Midwest, the land of the plains Indians, home of the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and many other tribes.

In 1851, the treaty at Fort Laramie was made; this was an agreement that the land in the Midwest remained Indian territory, under their sovereignty, but that wagon trains should be allowed to move West on their passage. But the army did not enforce this treaty, and settlers continued to break into Indian land.

The construction of the Bozeman railroad began and was planned to build a connection all the way to Montana. Many forts were built along this railroad, which ran through the land of the Lakota, who were determined to defend their last lands and resources. This era is known as “the great Indian war,” or “Red Cloud’s War”; but many great leaders where involved in this dramatic time. Crazy Horse (Oglala), Sitting Bull ( Hunkpapa), Gall (Hunkpapa), American Horse (Oglala), and many more brave warriors fought to defend the land they lived on. Then the military started to kill millions of buffalos as a strategy of eliminating the resources of the plains tribes and forcing them to surrender and move onto reservations. It is estimated that 40 million buffalos were killed in the 1860s.

The US military was forced to retreat; and a contract was signed again at Fort Laramie in 1868. This is one of the main treaties for the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other tribes of the prairie. This contract states that the Black Hills (territory in North and South Dakota, extending into Wyoming and Nebraska), would remain Indian Territory. But only four years later, gold was discovered in the Black Hills by illegal settlers, and the US government appointed General Custer to explore the Black Hills in search for gold.

Soon after this, the order went out to the Lakota to move onto reservations.

1876 General Custer and his army attacked a huge camp at the Little Big Horn River, but the warriors fought back and Custer’s Cavalry Regiment was completely defeated. After this the army started a hunt to chase down all tribes remaining in the prairie and force them onto reservations. Crazy Horse was killed in 1877 at Fort Robinson. Sitting Bull fled to Canada, and after his return to North Dakota he was killed on the Standing Rock reservation in 1890. The Minneconjou chief Big Foot fled to Pine Ridge, where he was stopped, and his band of more than 300 were massacred by the new Seventh Cavalry.

Today most of the Lakota Bands live on reservations in North and South Dakota: the Oglala (“Scatters Their Own”) in the Pine Ridge Reservation; the Hunkpapa (“Tip of the Horn”) at Standing Rock in North and South Dakota; Minneconjou (“Camps Near the Water”); Oohenunpa (“Two Kettles”), Itazipco (“Hunts without Bows”), and Sihasapa (Blackfeet) on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Sicangu (“Burnt Thigh”) are located on Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota. Then there are the Lower Brule, Sisseton, and Fort Thompson reservations in South Dakota.