Vanessa Goodthunder loves her culture, her community and her people.

The Redwood Valley High School graduate demonstrated her passion for things that were important to her from an early age. As she went on to post-secondary education, Goodthunder made learning more about her culture a priority.

Graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2016 with degrees in U.S. history and Dakota language studies, Goodthunder has also earned a masters degree in education.

“My culture is who I am,” said Goodthunder.

Helping others understand that culture has also been a passion for Goodthunder, and it was that passion which led her to a unique opportunity to speak for the Dakota people, and all of Minnesota’s Native Americans, at the state level. 

For seven months from May through November of last year, Goodthunder had been working as a tribal liaison in the office of Gov. Mark Dayton. The governor heard her speak during a conference they were both at, adding she spoke about the revitalization of the Dakota language.

Apparently, Goodthunder made a big enough impression on the governor that she was contacted to see if she had any interest in serving in his office as an assistant to the chief of staff focusing on tribal issues.

“At that time I was planning to come back to Lower Sioux to teach,” said Goodthunder, adding when the request came in she spoke with leaders at Lower Sioux, as well as Upper Sioux, and they encouraged her to take advantage of a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak up for the Native American way of life.

During her time working in the governor’s office, Goodthunder had plenty of opportunities to provide some cultural perspective, whether it was by speaking up when the infamous Walker Art Center’s scaffold was erected or it was serving as a liaison for tribes in discussions with other units of government.

“During the seven months I was in the governor’s office I learned a lot about government and what it means to be a leader,” said Goodthunder. “I never imagined I would work in government, and even though the role was a short one I think I was able to make a difference for the tribes.”

At the end of her time working in the governor’s office, Gov. Mark Dayton declared Dec. 8, 2017 as Vanessa Goodthunder Day in Minnesota, and in an official proclamation Goodthunder was recognized for her ability to educate others about the culture of her people and the issues that are important to all of Minnesota’s Native American tribes.

Goodthunder will continue in her role as a spokesperson for Native Americans during the Minnesota Tribal Youth Gathering this coming July, and she plans to stay as involved as she can in the issues that are important at the state and national level regarding Native Americans.

However, Goodthunder’s cultural focus has brought her back to the Lower Sioux community where she has been named the director of the Lower Sioux Head Start program that is being established to teach Dakota language immersion to children ages birth to age three.

The Lower Sioux community received a grant of $1.9 million to launch a Dakota language immersion Head Start program. The grant was awarded in September, and the plan is to have the early childhood program up and offering programming this coming April.

According to Goodthunder, there are only five people left who are fluent Dakota speakers who consider it their first language. The fear is that the language will be lost unless something is done about that.

Having learned bits and pieces of the Dakota language from elders and in other settings during her growing up years, Goodthunder considers herself to be a conversational speaker of Dakota.

What she wants is to be a catalyst for an entire new generation of youth who have Dakota as their first language, and that, she said, can happen in a classroom setting where the youngest of children are immersed in it.

Goodthunder said there is a desire from the Lower Sioux community to create ways for increased connections with culture, and there has been a very strong interest in having this language class.

While the focus of the Head Start program will be on Dakota language, it will also address the whole child as part of a family through education, physical health, nutrition, mental health and family/community engagement.

In total the plan is to serve up to 54 children through the program, with classroom interaction for 32 students in four rooms, as well as 10 children receiving home-based services and another 12 expecting families being served.

The program will be set up in the existing PlayZone area, said Goodthunder, adding she is very excited about the progress that has already been made to bring this program to fruition. The process of finding the staff for the programs is happening right now, added Goodthunder.

“My language is part of me,” she said. “Without it I am not whole.”

Goodthunder said at age 18 she dedicated her life to the Dakota language, adding she is glad to be back home and considers it a privilege to be able to help provide this opportunity for anyone who is interested in it.

Having studied Spanish in high school and been exposed to the Navajo language by her mom, Laverne, who is a first language speaker from Arizona, language has always been important to Goodthunder and a big part of her life.

Now she wants to help others find that same passion to continue the Dakota culture carries on for generations.