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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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"Protecting Our Language" And The Dakota Way
by Scott Tedrick, Editor, Granite Falls (MN) Advocate Tribune

There may be nothing more important to a culture's identity than its language.

According to National Geographic explorer Wade Davis, at the time today's typical adult was born there were 6,000 languages spoken on earth. Today, "fully half" are no longer being taught to school children.

Looking at a map of Minnesota, names such as Minneapolis, Kandiyohi, Mankato dot the landscape in reference to the Dakota language – the very first spoken in the state.

Yet, the existence of the very language from which the word "Minnesota" derives is in danger of being lost. In fact, after the recent passing of two Dakota elders, including local Rev. Gary Cavender, only nine first generation speakers remain to pass on the vernacular as it was once spoken – true to the sound and inflections as it had been expressed, at one time, in abundance.

Such knowledge should indicate what makes "Dakota Wicohan's" mission: to preserve Dakota as a living language, and through it, transmit Dakota lifeways to future generations, so important to all Minnesotans. While the significance to the Dakota people runs far deeper.

In the words of Dakota Wicohan Board Chair, Gabrielle Strong,
"The Dakota language is in a state of crisis, and with it the Dakota culture, oral history and way of life. Culture is a lens through which we view and understand our world. Therefore, unique Dakota thought and understanding shifts and declines with each passing year, and with each passing elder."

Dakota Wicohan
Now in its eighth year, Dakota Wicohan, or Dakota ‘Way of life,' is working toward the fulfillment of its mission by building a base of speakers, teachers and leaders; facilitating learning and language immersion opportunities and connecting the language to Dakota "life ways.

A variety of funding sources, from large foundation contributions down to individual donations, sustains the group and has permitted their efforts to support: three language apprentices, a Lower Sioux Youth Program and most pertinently a video production dubbed: "Protecting Our Language."

This past Saturday, Dakota Wicohan held a preview of their film "Protecting Our Language" in the back room of the Granite Falls Bank and F&M Insurance building.

Individuals with connections to Dakota Wicohan were invited to the event to see the preliminary production that has been in the works since 2008.

A number of the first generation speakers from the Upper Sioux will appear in the completed version of the film, including: Rev. Cavender, Genevieve LaBatte, Dean Blue and Carolynn Schommer.

Protecting our Language
Throughout "Protecting Our Language," Dakota elders express opinions and provide insights into the culture while alternating between the English and Dakota languages. In effect, the purity of the Dakota language and paradigm is captured through the first generation speakers – and it is something to think that had the taping not begun prior to Rev. Cavender ‘s death last April, that he would have never appeared on film.

During Cavender's portion of the video the reverend recalls his time as a student in Granite Falls and gives insight into the type of incidents that led to the suppression of the Dakota language over the years.

Pressured to answer a question directed his way during a class, Cavender said that, in his flustered state, he began to answer in his native tongue. The teacher responded by calling Cavender to the front of the class, and brandishing a ruler with a metal edge stated, "We do not speak that devil's language here. We speak english."

With that the teacher struck Cavender's hand, causing such profuse bleeding that "a much bigger boy put paper on it to stop [it]." But of course, such wounds go much deeper.

"We have to keep our language alive, not just Dakotas, but all nations," said Cavender on screen. "Once we lose our language we no longer exist as a nation. We are Dakota and our children should be taught that."

Getting back
A recurring theme expressed by others interviewed in the film, is the suggestion that by "getting back" to the Dakota way of life and language, the opportunity exists to heal much that ails the culture societally today.

Ninety-seven year old Genevieve Labatte recalled a childhood in which the Dakota way was still more prevalent, "We were relaxed, and we were happy. We didn't have a forcible life. We slept good at night. And we ate good food."

She spoke of the spiritual nature of the language, and of the profound effect it had on her elders when they gathered and conversed in Dakota. "They were so happy when they got together to talk Indian. It seemed like it relieved them of something and it made them so happy."

Schommer, who teaches a Dakota language class at Yellow Medicine East, expressed what she believed could become of the language in the future.

"It'll never be like it was 7,500 years ago," she said. "But it will be close to that if everyone works together towards it. And I think it's something native people should look at ... Who we were is what we want to try to get back to."

In the time following the preview of the production, additional Dakota speakers have been interviewed for the documentary and it is the expectation that the film will be completed by the end of the year.

Speaking out to the crowd of mixed ages and backgrounds following the end of production, Schommer mused aloud that "it is good for the soul to see all of this because it brings back memories, but we want to have more than just memories."

With the ongoing efforts of Dakota Wicohan, they will.

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