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Finding their voice: New program seeks to save the Dakota language

Stephanie Charging Eagle directs the Voices of Our Ancestors program at Cankdeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten, N.D. (Joshua Komer / Forum News Service)1 / 3
Marva Tollefson writes a Dakota phrase on the board to show how the sentence structure differs from the English language. (Joshua Komer / Forum News Service)2 / 3
Steven Lonnes talks about the different aspects of learning a language from scratch as opposed to others who have more experience with the Dakota language. Lonnes is taking a two-year immersion course in the Dakota language to preserve the language and inspire other Native Americans to do the same. (Joshua Komer / Forum News Service)3 / 3

FORT TOTTEN, N.D.—Inside a classroom on the Spirit Lake Nation reservation, a group of Dakota students are dedicating the next two years of their lives to preserving their language and strengthening their culture.

The room looks like any world language classroom, with posters containing basic phrases, colors, animals and household items lining the long walls. But the students are older, ranging from 20 to 55, and are tasked with keeping a dying language viable for generations to come.

In August, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, a reservation just southwest of Minneapolis, launched Voices of our Ancestors, a $2 million program dedicated to training 20 new Dakota speakers and teachers.

Cankdeska Cikana Community College on Spirit Lake is one of five tribal colleges participating in the program across the Great Plains. The program differs from other projects to preserve native languages in that it is paying its participants to fully immerse in learning Dakota, 40 hours per week for two years. The intention is to teach them the language so they can spread the knowledge further.

"I've never worked on a project like this and it is exciting because I get an opportunity to help preserve our culture," said Stephanie Charging Eagle, director of the Voices of our Ancestors program at CCCC.

Raised on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, Charging Eagle learned Lakota as her first language and became a native language preservation specialist. She believes continuing the language is key to maintaining culture.

"It's not just losing the language," Charging Eagle said. "It's talking about how people think and live."

Lakota and Dakota are dialects of the Sioux language with what Charging Eagle describes as slight differences. The dialects are considered mutually intelligible.

Across the United States, indigenous languages are at increasing risk of going extinct. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) considers 164 languages in the U.S. to be some level of endangered. Sioux, considered a vulnerable language by UNESCO with an estimated 25,000 speakers across dialects in the Midwest and Great Plains, is considered one of the more viable native tongues.

Charging Eagle is the director of the program, but Spirit Lake Nation member Marva Tollefson is the normal classroom teacher. Raised to speak both English and Dakota, Tollefson said the program is giving her a chance to learn with and through her students, who come in with varying levels of exposure.

The two have enjoyed speaking with each other to understand the differences between the Lakota and Dakota dialects.

"Marva and I can speak and understand each other," Charging Eagle said.

On a late September day about a month into the program, Tollefson goes around the room asking the students basic questions in Dakota, and helping them get through their replies by tweaking inflections and pronunciations. She helps the students get to the best response, but said she tries not to over-correct, because the language historically differed from village to village and band to band.

"The language differs from district to district, that's going to be the hard part," Tollefson said. "The variation is a challenge, but also part of the language's identity. If people have learned bits and pieces from their homes, the program wants to embrace that.

"Whatever your family speaks, speak it," Tollefson said.

It's something the organizers of the program anticipated and are embracing.

"Although each of our tribes is unique, we share the same desire to preserve our Dakota language," said Andrew Vig, a Voices of our Ancestors coordinator in Shakopee, Minn. "When you really understand the language, it changes the way you think and opens up a roadmap to our culture. This program is different because it gives these learners the time they need to fully immerse themselves in learning the language and gaining a deeper understanding of who we are as Dakota people."

Finding their voice

For the first couple of months, they're sticking to the basics. The students have had a broad range of exposure to Dakota in their childhoods. Some, like 20-year-old Darwin Three Irons, grew up with grandparents frequently speaking the language and learning traditional songs. Others, like 55-year-old Steven Lohnes, are being exposed for the first time.

"My goal is to inspire other people to learn the language," Steven Lohnes said.

Lohnes, also called Owicahkeyya or "He Who Helps", said he hopes to use the program to become a teacher and mentor throughout the community.

Although only four students are being paid to be full-time participants in the class, the policy across the Voices of our Ancestors program is to allow any tribal member who wants to join to participate.

Jeffrey White Buffalo heard words and phrases growing up, but was never given the opportunity to learn his native language. When he finally got one, he didn't hesitate.

"Some people quit their jobs in order to do this," White Buffalo said.

He said his father speaks Dakota and told him it was a beautiful language, now he's finding out for himself.

Children on the Spirit Lake reservation learn the language in grade school and are often taught the alphabet.

"Many can read and write it," Tollefson said. "But to speak it is totally different."

Dakota was historically an oral language, but over the years has produced official dictionaries and textbooks. In the last five years, there's even been an app created and a Lakota language Berenstain Bears show.

The alphabet has 34 letters and eight vowels, three of them nasal. The language frequently uses glottal stops.

Over the next year, the students will be building up their knowledge and vocabulary as they progress toward exclusively communicating in Dakota.

"The goal is full immersion," Charging Eagle said. "Eventually they're going to catch on."

Passing a legacy

For trained social worker Rebecca Mousseau, learning Dakota is an empowering process.

Generations of Native Americans were prohibited to speak their own languages at assimilation-prioritizing Indian schools run by the government, which sought to erase indigenous cultures.

"I'm here because our children have said they want to learn our language," Mousseau said.

She said she has big dreams for her community and that embracing the language as a point of pride is important for Dakota people moving forward.

"Tribal communities need to learn to heal from the inside out," Mousseau said. As the daughter of CCCC president Cindy Lindquist, he was exposed to pieces of the language growing up, but always in phrases, not full sentences. She now speaks more than her parents.

"It's more of a personal journey," she said of learning Dakota.

Michaela Smith's father spoke Dakota fluently, but she never had the chance to master the language growing. She said having children of her own inspired her to learn Dakota, so the children could learn their native tongue.

"Just to share that with my kids, that means a lot," Smith said.

Smith, a teacher, plans to get a master's degree in Dakota studies following the Voices of our Ancestors program and hopes to teach language and culture with generations to come.

Three Irons and fellow 20-year-old Ron Walking Eagle say their peers have commented on how cool the opportunity to learn the language is and many others are happy to learn young people are taking up Dakota .

Three Irons is one of the youngest students in the class, but had the most exposure growing up. His grandmother is a fluent speaker and he grew up singing traditional Dakota songs. He said he shares what he's learned with his grandmother, who offers advice on pronunciation and teaches him new words,too.

"To carry on a language is kind of a big responsibility for us," Three Irons said.

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