MORTON, Minn. — The words date back to a time in Minnesota when English was a foreign language — when the prairies, the sun, and the wind were described in Dakota.
This summer the Dakota language is being spoken at a park in Renville County; passed on at a day-camp to a new generation of young speakers. It is not unlike the early stages of the bald eagle’s flight back from near extinction.
Dallas Goldtooth, 27, who teaches at the camp, took visitors to the cemetery where his deceased grandparents are buried. It is where the Dakota language had ended for his family.
“They all spoke Dakota, but they never taught my mom,” he explains.
The loss of the language is one legacy of the era of Indian boarding schools. The Indian school in Pipestone and dozens of others throughout the country served a government policy of separating Native American children from their families, traditions and language.
Assimilating the natives was the objective of Richard Henry Pratt, an influential boarding school advocate who famously said in 1892, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
The philosophies of Pratt and others like him were like a hacksaw to a century’s long chain that had linked the transfer of the Dakota language from one generation to the next.
Unlike the bald eagle, there is no endangered species act to revive a language. Those efforts have begun on a scale less grand in small pockets across the state.
Yvonne Leith is an elder in Southwestern Minnesota’s Upper Sioux community. In June she was recorded as part of an effort to capture on video the state’s few remaining Dakota speakers.
When the project was launched three years ago organizers estimated that the number of fluent Dakota speakers in Minnesota, who’d grown up with the language, had dwindled to fewer than a dozen.
Since then several of those, including Gary Cavender, have passed away. Before he died, an emotional Cavender recounted on video the day at boarding school when he forgot his English and spoke Dakota. As he told it, the teacher became angry. “‘We don’t speak that devil’s language. We speak English,'” he remembers her saying. “Then she hit me. She really hurt me.”
Though Leith grew up speaking the language, she does not consider herself fluent. Still, her knowledge is sufficient to help mentor young apprentices like Goldtooth who then share the language with teens at summer camp. It is an effort to reconnect the broken links.
“For hundreds of years now the control of our lives has been dictated by the decisions of others,” said Goldtooth, “and we’re finally in a place as a people and as individuals where we can start taking control of ourselves.”
“I see this as we’re trying to rebuild that tiwahe and tiospaye, that family and that extended family component,” said Teresa Peterson, the executive director of the project known as Dakota Wicohan – meaning “Way of Life.”
“So what you’re seeing is that reclaiming of kinship, in the way that we treat each other. That’s the way of life,” explained Peterson.
Dakota Wicohan recieves its funding primarily through state and federal grants, including monetary contributions from the Minnesota Legacy Amendment administered through the Minnesota Historical Society.
Gianna Strong is among those learning the language through the summer day camp. “I can eventually pass it down to my children,” she said. “I think it’s a big responsibility.”
It’s a generational passage already renewed by Dallas Goldtooth who now regularly communicates with his young children in both English and Dakota.
“How can you see the world as a Dakota, if you can’t define the world with Dakota words?” he reasons. “That’s where we’re trying to get back.”
Count Goldtooth among those convinced it’s not too late to rescue the language of the Dakota, as well as saving an early voice of Minnesota.
(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)