I think that Bucknell is the kind of environment where if you have a sound idea and a lot of passion, the resources will be there to fully explore it.

Assistant Professor of Education Richard Henne-Ochoa learned a lot from a nine-year-old child. He was conducting ethnographic research at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota when he encountered a young Lakota girl who was reluctant to answer his questions. After some stilted back-and-forth, Henne paused and Kimimila (a pseudonym) began to speak. It was not just what she says, but how she says it that took Henne-Ochoa by surprise.

"What she displayed was remarkable competence in English using a Lakota speech genre that is used mostly by Lakota elders to instruct children and younger generations," Henne-Ochoa says. "Effectively what happened was instead of me interviewing her as an ethnographer and her as a research participant, she flipped it around and resisted that kind of format."

For 45 minutes, Kimimila talked to Henne-Ochoa about Lakota language, culture and tradition. All the while, she spoke with the tone, cadence and mannerisms used by elders in a format called wóiyaksape.

"That literally translates as 'to impart words of wisdom, to speak words of wisdom, to enlighten by giving a talking to,'" Henne-Ochoa says. "There is a sense that this is a real important event. It is not just some elder saying something to kids; it's 'Listen up, this is important. You might not hear this again for a long time, or ever.'"

Kimimila's school had classified her as an "English Language Learner," which means her language skills were deemed deficient. As Henne-Ochoa listened to her, he realized the educational system was missing a tremendous opportunity.

"There is this incredible linguistic resource that she has and that many language-minoritized children have," he says. "They come to school and that repertoire of linguistic practice is barely tapped. Therefore, many teachers and many places see these kids as having some kind of language deficiency rather than look at the resources they already have and build bridges from those resources to so-called 'standard English,' or 'academic English.'"

Unfortunately, says Henne-Ochoa, these abilities are invisible to many of the people who make decisions about educational policy that affects language-minoritized children.

Henne-Ochoa hopes his research will help foster a better understanding of the many different ways that children use language and how best to reach them through the knowledge and skills they already have. "That's what really drives my work, I think, is my commitment to making some contribution towards equality of educational opportunity," he says.

As part of his interest in revitalizing dying languages, Henne-Ochoa also hopes to work with Bucknell students and Lakota schools to develop talking books of Lakota stories, with both Lakota- and English-speaking narrators and Lakota illustrations. As the project takes shape in collaboration with the Lakota community, Henne-Ochoa appreciates the support the University provides its teacher-scholars.

"I think that Bucknell is the kind of environment where if you have a sound idea and a lot of passion, the resources will be there to fully explore it," he says.

Posted Sept. 22, 2009