UPPER SIOUX COMMUNITY -- Harry Running Walker remembers the lesson.
Dog, he told the teacher who pointed to an animal in a picture. Cat. "Sunka. Kidi."
The 9-year-old used the wrong language. He spoke Dakota, his birth language. And the teacher went to the principal.
"It took me two or three years before I could say some good English words," the 74-year-old says now.
He never guessed someone would try to turn the tables. That, this time, he'd be the one giving the lesson.
Pezihutazizi Wahohpi Wohdakapi Unspe (Yellow Medicine Language Learning Nest) is a preschool meant to turn the tide of a crisis, one in which a language has nearly slipped past the grasp of its proud culture.
It's not a lone struggle, considering the world loses a language every two weeks. But as more people recognize the strength in diversity and heritage finds an ally in once-hostile governments, programs like Wilson's have the chance to take root.
The timing couldn't be more crucial for the Upper Sioux. The only full-time Native American language immersion program, it opened its doors almost six months ago to a community that has all of 18 fluent Dakota speakers.
Not one is younger than 60.
"There's very few of us left," Running Walker says. "Our Dakota language is dying."
Counting Upper Sioux's 371 among the 1,200 or so Dakota people scattered throughout Minnesota, those who speak the language fluently has dwindled to about 30. Running Walker's generation, shipped off to Indian boarding schools, learned numbing lessons about assimilation. One of them:
"It was a conscious decision not to learn the language," says Upper Sioux community member Tim Blue. "We were encouraged not to speak it because it would be easier in school."
And so the challenge falls to the siceca (children) such as the preschoolers who tumble each weekday morning into the roundhouse they share with the community housing authority.
"This is very much linked to our language," Wilson says. "If we lose it, we cease to be Dakota."
Waziyata Win (Woman of the North)
For years, Wilson had been aware of the immersion concept and what it meant -- a proven way to teach a second language. Accepting the council's offer, she began to research more thoroughly.
"What most people in Native American language work realize is that immersion is the only thing that's going to produce native (language) speakers," she says.
Targeting young children seemed an obvious choice. Young minds are eager sponges that become more and more saturated and less and less able to pick new things up as they age.
Key to Wilson's plan, of course, was to include fluent Dakota speakers -- elders such as Running Walker. In that, she found a challenge. Preschoolers are a hardy bunch. And any elder who agreed to participate would also have to take "teacher training."
"I have no experience, nothing," says Running Walker, one of several elders who eventually agreed to give it a try. "All I have is I talk Dakota good."
That was plenty. The preschool opened its doors Oct. 4.
Wanca, nunpa, yamni... (one, two, three)
"Mato, mato, mato...," begins 4-year-old Hepanna, which translates to Second-born child, male, as he stalks the circle and eyes his prey.
"Mato sapa!" he yells, tapping Wicanhpi Ota Win's head, and a chase begins. Mato sapa (black bear) is a game like duck, duck, goose. Hepanna safely finds the empty spot left behind by his classmate, and the game begins anew.
As with other immersion programs, the children at the Upper Sioux preschool do all the regular activities you'd expect, but do them in a Dakota-only environment. The language surrounds them in games and lessons and explanations. No adult speaks English during the four-hour school day. Materials such as children books have had Dakota translations taped over the English words.
"These kids are doing good," Running Walker says. "They're carrying sentences."
They've also begun to use Dakota outside the classroom.
Wicanhpi Ota Win, which means Many Stars Woman, went with her family to Duluth recently to visit relatives. The 5-year-old, asked to count some things, didn't hesitate: Wanca, nunpa, yamni...
"She does choose it over English sometimes," says her mom, Marisa Pigeon, who sends Wicanhpi Ota Win to the preschool. "It seems to be working."
The Dakota words and phrases that have begun to creep into the preschoolers' vocabulary are spoken in other places, including Nebraska, the Dakotas and Canada. But, Wilson says, all Dakota communities face the same issue. Collaboration is made hard by geographical isolation.
Such problems are not unique.
Of the world's 6,700 or so languages, linguists figure one disappears every two weeks. Of the 213 languages listed for the United States by Texas-based SIL International, two-thirds are at best spoken by middle-aged people or older. Thirty-five already are extinct. Most Native languages, linguists say, are only spoken by the older generations.
"There are estimates that 90 percent of the world's languages are going to be lost in the next 100 years or so," says Indiana University's Bill Johnston, an applied linguist who's worked with Wilson as she's developed the Upper Sioux program. "Most of them are on the way out. Languages only survive if children speak them."
Tunkansida Wakantanka (Grandfather Great Mystery)
"Tunkansida Wakantanka ... woyute unyak'upi wopida unkenic'iyapi ... Hecetu nunwe," Wilson begins, leading some two dozen community members of all ages in a prayer before dinner.
Grandfather Great Mystery, for this food, we thank you. Amen.
The Wednesday "family nights" are open to anyone in the community, but they are especially meant for the families of the children who attend the preschool. The evening opens with a potluck dinner, then proceeds on to various lessons -- everything from bingo to guessing games -- all spoken in Dakota.
Here, regardless of bloodlines, common courtesies take on relative terms: Haw/Han Tunwin. Haw/Han Mitozan. Hello, Aunt. Hello, my niece.
If all this has an intangible, it's pride.
"Every time I go to the West Side," Blue says of St. Paul's bustling Latino community. "I think, 'I'd like to hear all this in Dakota.' "
Language, in part, completes a culture.
"A language is not just a code for saying things," Johnston says. "It represents a whole culture, a whole way of life, a way a community's rooted in its place."
At the preschool, every day begins and ends with a Round Dance. Generations link themselves by hand and move to traditional song, making their way twice around the building.
Wilson is trying, for the community, to build a foundation with her school. Something culturally important. Something historically important.
"It seems to me that they've got an awful lot of things right," Johnston says of the program.
But there's also a matter of building something educationally important.
In 1959, three of Upper Sioux's own became the first to graduate from the local school system. No more than three have graduated any given year since, and not because they didn't exist.
Blue, the administrator of nearby Eci Nompa Woonspe (Second Chance Learning) Charter School currently has six high school seniors from Upper Sioux enrolled in his alternative education program. That's four more than attend the local public high school.
"Children who are comfortable with their own culture and the position of their culture in the larger society are more apt to do well in school than children who are uneasy with the use of their Native language and cultural heritage," once wrote William Demmert, a member of the federal Indian Nations At Risk Task Force.
"The local schools have been so unsuccessful at educating our kids," Wilson says. "I think we need our own school."
He unkiyepi (It is who we are)
An interactive CD-ROM, begun by Wilson and still developing, both preserves what has been and offers a new kind of learning tool. Dakota pronunciations by fluent speakers, for example, are being recorded for the project.
A Dakota-English "dictionary project," coordinated by Wilson's father, Chris Mato Nunpa, has been underway for several years. White missionaries almost 100 years ago compiled both of the two Dakota dictionaries in use now.
"We know we're working toward the long-term benefit of our people," Wilson says.
Which brings her back to the children.
Wilson, who has three of her own, has a long-term dream for what's begun here. She wants to see the preschool blossom as the children do, going as high as grade 12. She has very few models to base such a desire on. But it has been done before.
Parents began a grassroots effort in Hawaii in 1984 to revitalize their Hawaiian language. They modeled it after a successful Maori language program in New Zealand. Hawaii, which only in 1986 abolished a law enacted in 1896 prohibiting the teaching of Hawaiian in the public schools, now sponsors popular immersion programs through grade 12.
It's the only state to do such a thing, though the federal government has stepped forward to encourage such efforts. Congress, a decade ago, passed the Native American Languages Act that made it government policy to promote, protect and preserve indigenous languages.
Wilson, for her part, can imagine a Dakota immersion charter school. But that's for the future.
Tokatakiya Woape (Hope for the future)
"She was an enormous influence on me," says Wilson, who double-majored in history and American Indian studies. "I was working with oral tradition a lot, and the stories of a lot of our elders are told in Dakota.
"If nothing else, it developed my love of working with the language."
But love and determination don't guarantee success. Wilson, who has opened the preschool as a free program, has to prove she means it to be a consistent community presence.
Money and, in the short-term, time may work against that.
Start-up money has come from the tribal council, the Southwest Minnesota Foundation and the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Native Americans. But it will take more than start-up money to keep the doors open.
With costs between $150,000 and $200,000, Wilson already is trying to figure out how to pay for next year.
And that leads to problem two: Wilson doesn't expect to be here next year.
A candidate for a doctorate in American History at Cornell University, Wilson should complete her degree this spring and accept a job in Arizona. She's put her heart and soul into her work and her community here, but she also has her dreams and a big opportunity far away.
Not an easy choice to make.
"I do worry a lot," Wilson says.
But don't be so quick to think the cord will be cut.
"Even though I'll be in Arizona, I'm still committed to the success of this program. That includes grants, fundraising, whatever I have to do," she said.
Zaptan maku (Give me five)
"Zaptan maku!" he says, beaming. "Zaptan maku."
Give me five, give me five -- a reward brought on by a spontaneously spoken Dakota sentence.
Outside the preschool, sparrows dart around the bird feeder by the window. Running Walker, hands behind his back, watches from the corner.
"I was feeling bad," Running Walker says. "The good Lord said, 'I'm going to get you one-by-one.' But he never said how or when. When I heard (about the program), I was happy. Very happy."
Running Walker never made it past sixth grade. By then, he'd been held back so often he was 16. He never learned all the English words he was supposed to.
But here, he shines like the anpetu wi (sun).
"I want young kids to learn about Dakota."
For more information about the Upper Sioux Community language program, contact Angela
Cavender Wilson at
Kristina Torres, who covers education and school choice issues, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 228-2120.
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