Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


april 7, 2001 - Issue 33



'Di Waste' (It is Good)


by Lorraine Grey Bear Grand Forks Herald


Teacher of the Dakota language helps keep a culture alive.

"It is sad to say that when we lose a fluent speaking elder, that elder is not being replaced by a fluent speaker. We want to stop this trend that with each generation, more and more of the language is lost."

Why is it important to teach the Dakota language to the Dakota people? It is so important because if you know your language and the elders talk to you, you understand what they are talking about and what they mean. The language is the Dakota thought and concept. We have a different way of thinking and a different way of perceiving things -- different from the non-Natives.

The language is also part of the culture. It is our identity. It is who we are. Without the language and the culture, it hard to call ourselves Native Americans. It is that important.

Some of our students are lacking these things in their lives. They listen to rap music. They wear baggy clothes, trying to imitate another group of people -- but that is not who they are.

Down deep inside, they are proud of who they are, but they don't know that they are that person that they are proud of, because some don't have the culture, language and spirituality.

At Cankdeska Cikana (Little Hoop) Community College, we have a Kunsi and Tunkansidan (grandmother and grandfather) program. We have 10 elders and some alternates. They will go into the classroom on April 9 and will teach conversational Dakota. The program is for 10 weeks, two hours per day.How does the language fit into spirituality? The spirituality of Native people is so integrated into everyday life that you can't separate the spirituality from the people. For example, we make offerings to Tunkasina (God or Creator) for everything we are do.

You can't teach the language without teaching some spirituality or some culture. It is all interwoven. If you don't understand the language, does that mean you can't participate in the culture? Oh no, we have people who don't understand the language. We even have non-Natives people who participate in the culture. It's what's in your heart. After all, Tunkasina understands every language. There are some non-Natives who Sundance, go to Sweat or have a Sacred Pipe. Who is to say who can have a Sacred Pipe? Tunkasina doesn't say that if you are not Native American, you can't participate in the culture. Did you grow up speaking the language? Dakota was my first language but I don't remember when I learned English. It seems like I have always known the two languages.

When I was 6, I went to school at St. Michael mission school at Fort Totten for a couple of years. I talked English there. When I came home, I talked Dakota again and I mispronounced some words. Our brothers and sisters would just laugh at me. They thought it was funny that I was talking OK before I left for school.

What that did to me is stopped me from talking Dakota. I would respond in English. So after that, I spoke English and the family spoke Dakota. We hear about some of the experiences Native American students had in boarding school, where they were punished for speaking their language. Did that happen to you? No. I went there when I was 6, and I already spoke English. Before you came to the tribal college, did you teach the Dakota language? I worked in the high school for eight years. I assisted Bruce Ven, who is non-Native. I assisted him with whatever classes he taught -- social studies, tribal government, history. And Dakota language was one of them. I could pronounce the words correctly. He could pronounce them but not as well. He taught at Spirit Lake in the school system since he was 24 years old and he must be close to 50 now.

While I was working at the school, I had to reapply for my job. I had to be certified to teach the culture and language. I was interviewed by a panel of elders in nothing but Dakota. They asked questions in Dakota and I had to answer in Dakota.

I earned my certification and eventually taught grades 5, 6, 7 and 8 and high school.

While there, I saw that the language was not being retained by the students. What we taught them during the school year, they would forget over the summer because no language was spoken in the home.

Then Eric Longie, president of the tribal college, asked me if I would come and work at Cankdeska Cikana.

I hated to leave my students at Four Winds, but I think this program is going to be more effective in reviving the language. There are people who may be my age who can understand the language but can't speak. They will start to learn to speak fluently.

We have some young people who are fluent speakers. We are going to encourage them and teach them how to read and write Dakota so they can go into the schools and teach.



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