MORTON, MINN. – A language at risk of dying is taking on new life with Trella Oldrock and other teens.
This fall, for the first time, a class in Dakota is being offered for high school students here on the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation as part of a statewide effort to revitalize American Indian languages.
“Without our language and culture, we’re just people,” said Oldrock, a 15-year-old sophomore who signed up for the class. “I want to keep it alive.”
Only a few people who grew up in the state and learned Dakota as their first language are still living. Just last week, the last fluent speaker of the Lower Sioux, who recently died, was buried here, giving new urgency to teacher Ryan Dixon’s mission to pass on the language skills to others before it’s too late.
“Within my lifetime that’s going to be gone,” he said of speakers who are fluent in Dakota. “Words have been lost.”
While the Lower Sioux community has offered Dakota language classes for middle school students and adults, Dixon said his yearlong class is the first to be offered for credit at the high school level in southern Minnesota and is one of only a few of its kind in the state.
“Slowly we’re starting to regain the things we lost,” he said.
The twice-a-week, two-hour night class meets at a center on the reservation, located along the bluffs of the Minnesota River two hours southwest of the Twin Cities.
It’s part of a broader resurgence in keeping Indian culture and traditions alive in Minnesota — from playing lacrosse to restoring wild rice fields. And it starts with reclaiming the languages that ancestors were once discouraged from speaking.
The Lower Sioux, who partnered with two public school districts — Redwood and Cedar Mountain — in offering the class, also developed a new Dakota language app this year. And they are launching a Dakota language early childhood immersion school next summer, hosting their first-ever Dakota language bowl in November and planning to add Dakota words to street signs.
“Language is part of our identity, it’s part of who we are,” said Robert “Deuce” Larsen, vice president of the Lower Sioux, which has about 1,000 enrolled members.
Partnering with schools
The push to revive native languages across Minnesota, home to 10 other tribes, is part of a national trend, said Dennis Olson Jr., executive director of the state’s Indian Affairs Council. Since 2010, the state has dedicated more money to a language revitalization program, administered through the council. In the next biennium, $2.4 million in Legacy Amendment funds will go toward Indian immersion schools and other language efforts in Minnesota, which is itself a Dakota word for “cloud tinted waters.”
“It is really unique and innovative,” Olson said of the Lower Sioux partnering with the two school districts. “That’s something that could serve as a model for tribes across the state.”
At the Lower Sioux homeland near Morton, traditionally referred to as the Cansayapi — “where they paint the trees red” — community leaders are working to restore traditions, from adding canoes to porcupine quill art classes.
“What does ‘azidya’ mean?” Dixon asked students.
“Smudge,” a student replied.
‘We’re going to need speakers’
On a stormy October night, the nearly dozen teens attending class sat around a table and watched Dixon write the word on a whiteboard. He explained that every class would begin with roll call after the smudge.
“You’re wiping yourself off, cleansing yourself of negative energy so we can learn the language with a clean mind,” Dixon said.
He turned to the alphabet, ticking off each letter as the students mimicked the sounds he made — the cluck of a “k” or the guttural “g.”
“I want to hear you guys start speaking. We’re going to need speakers,” he told them. “We’re making a lot of progress in the community. We’re going to bring language back.”
While any high school student in the local Redwood and Cedar Mountain school districts can take the class, those who signed up this fall are all enrolled Lower Sioux members.
Next year, Dixon said, Redwood Valley and Cedar Mountain high schools will offer the class during the regular school day, just like any world language, fulfilling a goal that he and teacher Vanessa Goodthunder have had for years.
Dixon, 36, is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe in South Dakota and grew up learning the Lakota language from his grandmother.
Dixon, who now lives on the Lower Sioux Reservation with his wife and their three children, was working at Jackpot Junction Casino in Morton when he was asked about sharing his passion for language. Now he teaches Dakota to middle schoolers, teens and adults of all ages.
“It’s our direct link to the creator,” he said about the language, which is believed to be a gift from the creator. “It’s just who we are, and I don’t want to see it go.”
For Oldrock, the class not only offers her a chance to connect with her past and her culture, but also possibly serves as a link to her future. The 10th-grader aspires to be a language teacher like Dixon.
“De taku he? What is this?” Dixon asked the class, pointing to a photo of a bald eagle.
“Anunkasan,” some of the students guessed.
Dixon smiled and nodded.
“You guys,” he said, “are going to be speaking the Dakota language by the end of the year.”