It is always difficult to get to the reasons why teaching Native
languages to very young children in Minneapolis is unusual and rare.
Today, the unlikely leadership for doing that and support for languages
comes from a U.S. Senator from Montana, a state most known to be
Montana sits in the middle of the ten poorest states according
to Forbes magazine and it moves along with its staple farming, ranching
and mining, but contrary to ideas of conservative cowboys, it also
sits in the middle politically, having elected both Republicans
and Democrats to statewide offices. Jon Tester won office in 2007
and the other Democratic Senator, former Lt. Governor John Walsh,
has been serving since February 2014 by appointment of Gov. Steve
Bullock. He took office after Democratic incumbent left to become
U.S. Ambassador to China.
Tester has wasted little time since he took office to look
deeply at the needs of the tribes and nations. He became chair of
the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs this year when former chair
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) stepped down.
Tester's visit to Minneapolis and the Wicoie Nandagikendan
program is another illustration of how he sees Indian country: he
wants to see communities in action.
Jennifer Bendickson is executive director of the program and
she demonstrates its importance to the Indian community by telling
a little story. "The Wicoie children went on a field trip to a local
apple orchard. It was a warm, sunny day and as the group was leaving,
the grower came up to me and said we were his favorite visitors
"It was because he saw the little children thank the trees
for their apples."
"Those are the kinds of things that make me happy to know our
little children are bringing our culture with them wherever they
go," Bendickson said.
Jewell Arcoren also works with Wicoie. She is an optimistic
person with an obvious love for the children that include her own
grandchildren, who are learning Dakota. Two girls have now enrolled
in Bdote Learning Center, an immersion school that teaches in the
Ojibwe and Dakota languages.
But Wicoie also struggles, like many small non-profits, to
raise sufficient funds to keep the project going. Arcoren and Bendickson
are busy preparing for another taco sale on Nov. 7. The sale is
from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the preschool immersion program (2438
18th Ave. S., Minneapolis). Wicoie will also have a Spring community
feast and a cook-off contest during Indian Month in 2015. All of
these events are open to the public.
For those who are interested, the Wicoie Nandagidendan web
site has phrases with pronunciations in Ojibwe and Dakota and information
about program activities.
If that sounds incredibly busy, there's more. Wicoie will be
visiting the state legislature to provide information about the
program and others like it to keep state Legacy funds going to the
dozens of language programs throughout the state. In preparation
Wicoie received resolutions of support for this work from the Indian
Affairs Council, representing all eleven reservations in the state;
the Urban Affairs Advisory Board to the Council, and the Metropolitan
Urban Indian Directors group.
Bendickson and Arcoren appeared on First Person Radio on Oct.
29 to discuss their work and they brought a three-year old from
the Wicoie program. The youngster sang three songs in Dakota. It
was a stunning example of what can happen when language is taught
to very young children. Wicoie starts with babies as young as 16-
to 18-months, when language begins, on up to preparation for kindergarten.
Data is showing that much higher percentages of Wicoie kids are
ready for kindergarten than other groups. It's a program that we
should all know about.
Laura Waterman Wittstock is a retired nonprofit executive and now
hosts First Person Radio with Roy Taylor on KFAI-FM, Wednesdays
at 9 a.m.
Nandagikendan Early Childhood Urban Immersion Program
Welcome to the Wicoie Nandagikendan Early Childhood Urban Immersion
Projects website. Wicoie Nandagikendan provides a 3-hour-a-day
preschool language immersion experience. It builds on the integral
connections between culture, literacy, and educational attainment.
The project partners with existing programs to provide the classrooms
with Ojibwe and Dakota speakers as well as curriculum in those languages.