Mendota tribe struggles to keep language, culture alive

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2010 - 8:50 AM

It's believed that fewer than 10 Minnesotans speak fluent Dakota. The Mendota Dakota want to change that.

The two-story house in dot-on-the-map Mendota (population: 197) is more ragged than rustic.

White paint is peeling off doors. A side porch has collapsed. On the front lawn, weeds have won the turf war against grass.

But on Wednesday nights, supporters of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community try to forget they have trouble making rent on their ramshackle community center. There is important work to do here along Hwy. 13: There's a language and culture to preserve.

The band of 200 to 300 people is working locally to increase the dwindling number of people who know the Dakota language and nationally to gain federal recognition as an independent tribe, a designation that would bring much-needed financial help.

Fewer than 10 Minnesotans speak fluent Dakota, tribal leaders and academics estimate. In a state with more than 5 million residents, that means one in every 500,000 people, at best, have command of the indigenous language whose roots date back centuries.

The weekly Dakota language classes are attended by five to 30 people, and the Mendota Dakota are trying to increase that number. Dakota speakers also teach weekly courses at Little Earth Neighborhood Education Center in Minneapolis on Mondays and American Indian Family Center, in St. Paul, on Fridays during the school year.

"It's a very hard language," said tribal council member Sharon Lennartson. "My brain just does not comprehend."

The Mendota Dakota trace their plight back to the Dakota Conflict of 1862, when the Dakota waged war to protest unfair treatment. Afterward, the United States exiled most of them, removing their reservations in the process.

Tribal leaders estimate that fewer than 100 Dakotans remained. A people and their language suffered here as a result.

"Language is what holds and communicates a culture," said Beth Brown, program associate for Dakota language at the University of Minnesota.

"The stakes are high now; people aren't going to let it die."

'We've lost a lot of things'

At the Mendota community center, students and their instructor, who is more learner than learned, pore over their notebooks and crack open Dakota-English dictionaries.

Substitute teacher Brian Nackerud has studied Dakota for a couple of years; by his estimate, he has the language skills of a 4- or 5-year-old.

When spoken properly, Brown said, the language is nasal and guttural, with many sounds articulated in the nose and throat.

"It's a real cool language," Nackerud said. "There's no swear words. The concept just isn't there."

Although thousands of people across North America speak Dakota, a member of Siouan language family, University of Minnesota staff peg the number of fluent Minnesotans at between five and eight. But even that is tenuous.

One of those people, Faith Bad Moccasin -- the former instructor at the Mendota class -- suffered a stroke this year that left her right arm paralyzed. She now uses a wheelchair and has daily therapy to fully restore her speech.

"It's dying out," said Bad Moccasin, 64. "We've lost a lot of things. Not only the language but our values and traditions."

Tribal council member Lennartson, like many of her peers, wasn't raised Dakota. When her grandmother was forced to leave Minnesota for boarding school in Carlisle, Pa., staff there tried to beat the Dakota language and culture out of her.

When she returned, she refused to speak the language or even talk about that period of her life. She chose not to teach her children or grandchildren out of love.

Now, Lennartson clings to whatever is left of her culture. For years, she's volunteered at the community center.

As other tribe members have lost interest or hope, the 63-year-old has taken on bookkeeping, maintenance, receptionist and webmaster duties while battling chronic pain from fibromyalgia.

A recent renegotiation of the tribe's lease allowed the council to afford a $25 weekly salary for Lennartson. By her calculations, that's just enough for gas money.

"This might be our critical stage," she said. "I just keep going. I'm here until the doors are shut and locked."

Recognition and survival

The Mendota Dakota petitioned for federal recognition of tribal status in 1996; the designation would bring federal dollars, support and opportunities for expansion.

The funds could allow them to buy land, build their own cultural center and more aggressively pursue language education, among other things.

The effort appears to have fallen flat. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a letter requesting more information in 1997. "We haven't heard from them since," said Nedra Darling, bureau spokeswoman.

In the past 30 years, close to 300 groups have petitioned for federal recognition. Few have met the demanding criteria.

"If you don't have many people working on it, it's going to be difficult," Darling said.

There are more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States, including 11 in Minnesota.

Mendota Dakota council members plan to renew their campaign this fall, cultural chairman Jim Anderson said.

But with their lack of resources and manpower, "I don't think it's going to happen in my lifetime," Lennartson said.

For now, rent for the community center is paid for this month and next. And like their language, the Mendota Dakota are hanging on in Minnesota.

"Our culture will not be lost on the generations to come," said Martha Fast Horse, a language student and community activist.

"It will not."

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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