Obago-Nicolar remembers asking her 4-year-old daughter Felicity
to pick up a blue cereal box one day.
said, 'the TO box?' "
pronounced like "tow," means blue in Dakota Indian language.
was one of Obago-Nicolar's first memories of Felicity speaking Dakota
at home after starting the Dakota language immersion program at
the Siceca Learning Center on the campus of Sisseton Wahpeton College.
immersion program grew out of the desire of the Dakota people to
do something to preserve the Dakota language," said Bill Lonefight,
president of the college.
had been discussing a Dakota immersion language program for a year
with Tammy DeCoteau, field manager of the Association on American
Indian Affairs' Sisseton chapter.Dakota is the language of the Dakota
Sioux Tribe, which lives east of the Missouri River, including the
11,000 Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribal members.
came to me four months ago and said 'I have $5,000, so can we start?'
college's day care for children of the staff and students was then
reformatted around the immersion program, Lonefight said.
immersed: On a snowy day this month, the children's singing could
be heard outside the center located in a trailer on campus.
after opening the door would visitors realize that the melodies
of the songs might be familiar, but not the words.
children and the day-care providers were singing "London Bridge
is Falling Down" in Dakota as they each crossed under the bridge
formed of four arms.
the nearby table, three tribe elders were sipping coffee, watching
the children and smiling.
another corner, two drummers were showing little boys how to beat
a large drum with leather-wrapped drumsticks.
the walls, brightly colored pictures are posted among papers with
lyrics, words and phrases all in Dakota.
smiled as he picked up a little girl who ran over to give him a
Dakota language is in danger of extinction because of years of boarding
schools and the forced assimilation of tribal members into Anglo-American
culture, he said.
than 10 percent of tribal population speaks Dakota and most of those
are over the age of 60," Lonefight said. "Unless we do
something, we are very close to having it fade."
center has since secured more funding, including $325,000 to construct
a new building for the day care.
they still need another $100,000 to complete and furnish the building,
part of identity: Native American tribes are looking to preserve
their languages for various cultural and historical reasons, Lonefight
of those (reasons) are fairly pragmatic, like the ability to communicate
with your grandparents," he said.
language is also a substantial part of a tribal member's identity.
elders repeatedly tell us that some of the solutions for current
social problems are imbedded in our languages," Lonefight said.
"When people spoke Dakota, they truly knew how to treat one
another. They truly understood where they belonged in relation to
other people, to the natural world (and) to the spiritual world."
help, too: The center has six Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribal elders
who visit regularly. They help the caregivers and the children with
their pronunciations and translate books and songs into Dakota.
the language has different dialects for men and women, three elders
involved are men and three are women.
Bernard, one of the six elders, said he got involved because he
wanted to help keep the language alive.
language is so deep it comes from the heart," he said. "Whatever
I say in Dakota, it has a deeper meaning because that's the way
the Dakota language is."
is a language without any swear words, Bernard said.
abilities: Lonefight said another reason the college is getting
involved is the research is proving that bilingual children have
added cognitive skills.
do better in school. They have increased higher order of thinking
skills. They are able to make connections."
scans have shown that bilingual people use more areas of their brains,
a little odd that at the same time schools were pressing children
to learn Spanish, French, Japanese and Russian they were pressing
the other way to extinguish the Dakota, the Cherokee, the Muskogee
and Lakota (languages)," Lonefight said.
loss of the tribal languages could also mean the loss of certain
knowledge that's only recorded in those languages such as traditional
medicines, he said.
elders have also said that the Native American languages were the
way they were taught to talk to God, Lonefight said.
doesn't mean there aren't other ways, but they were the ways that
we were specifically given and (the elders) worry that if we allow
our languages to fade we might miss something."
program has been a success in its first three months, Lonefight
been successful not just in working with the children, but in creating
an awareness on the reservation that something practical can be
the field manager for AAIA, said parents' reactions have been positive.
people want their children to learn the language," she said.
The parents receive a copy of the words and phrases the children
voice recording of the words and phrases is in the process of being
created and the college will offer a course on teaching children
Dakota next semester.
are trying to encourage parents to learn along with them,"
DeCoteau said. "People as adult learners are embarrassed to
talk in front of somebody who's fluent. But I think people aren't
embarrassed to talk to their children."
Pumpkinseed, another visiting tribal elder, said he enjoys helping
the children learn Dakota.
morning I get good greetings from them," he said. "They
are happy to see us. They give us hugs."
Wayne Eastman said he loves seeing the progress children have made
in the program.
tell them to put something away in Dakota and they do it,"
he said. "They are learning."
Seaboy, who visits the center once a week with his brother Cody
to teach the boys to play the traditional drum, said he likes the
visits and the idea behind them.
started playing drums at this age," Alfred said.
said he thinks the immersion program idea is great.
kind of wish I was brought up and taught this way and was able to
speak the language better."
chief finance officer of the college, said she is learning Dakota
along with her daughter, Felicity.
day (she) comes home and teaches me something," Linda said.
"I need to keep learning to keep up with her."