The issue: The number of Dakota first language speakers is declining

Local impact: A new class is being offered to teach the next generation to speak the language

Dakota is a language, but it is much more than just nouns, verbs and adjectives.

A group of area high school students is learning that through a new class being offered locally. The Dakota language class started this past October, and each Monday and Wednesday night from 6-8 p.m. the students meet with teacher Ryan Dixon to learn to speak Dakota but also to learn the history and heritage that makes Dakota more than just words.

Dixon, a Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) certified Dakota language instructor, is working with a group of 12 students who are earning foreign language credit through the class. Like other foreign language classes, Dixon said the curriculum he offered had to meet the state’s education standards. 

At the end of the class the students must demonstrate a certain level of competency in order to receive credit toward earning their high school diploma.

Dixon, in collaboration with Lower Sioux community leaders, presented the idea of offering the class to the Redwood Area Board of Education last year.

The class was offered to any high-school student who wanted to take the class.

However, there is a significant commitment to participating, as the students attend classes outside of the traditional school day on top of a full schedule of coursework.

For Emmarica Larsen and Tylar Larsen, who are both Redwood Valley High School students, all of the extra effort is worth it when they know what they are doing is not only helping them better understand their culture as part of the Dakota people but it is also helping to address the reality of that language.

The Dakota language is in danger of disappearing.

That assessment was made by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council in 2011 when it conducted a study.

Using legacy amendment funds appropriated by the state legislature in 2009, the Indian affairs council led a volunteer working group to see just how serious the issue facing indigenous languages was in the state and determined those languages, including Dakota, were on the decline and faced the potential point of being lost beyond recovery.

According to Dixon, there are less than a handful of what are known as first language Dakota speakers left in Minnesota, and he said none of them call the Lower Sioux community their home.

Dixon grew up hearing the Dakota language from his grandmother, who was a first language speaker.

A first language Dakota speaker is one who considers that language to be their primary way of communication.

Following the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862, the United States government decided to implement an assimilation program that was intended to “kill the Indian, but save the man,” which led to the development of a policy that took the Dakota children away from their families placing them in boarding schools.

Those children were discouraged to the point of severe punishment, for showing any signs of their Dakota culture, whether it was through practice of traditions or speaking the language. That policy was in place for several generations, and as a result many lost their connection not only to their Dakota language but also to their culture, heritage and history.

Over time attitudes changed, as did government policy.

In fact, in 1979 Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which changed the government’s perspective and began the road back toward healing for the American Indian way of life.

There is a lot of work left to do to help generations of people who have been raised in a different culture, and people like Dixon are committed to helping the younger generation learn more about who they are.

In fact, Dixon said he is currently offering a number of classes during the week to those young and old as he helps them learn about the Dakota language.

“As I teach the language I am continuing to learn,” said Dixon, adding he said he can hold conversations in Dakota but does not consider himself to be fluent. “Right now I am teaching up to 11 different classes a week.”

Dixon’s schedule will increase soon, as he will also be teaching in the Dakota immersion program for preschool children that is being offered at Lower Sioux.

Emmarica Larsen said she has been exposed to the language for much of her life through her family Tylar Larsen added lot of what is being taught is new.

However, both recall hearing some words only in Dakota at home.

“I didn’t learn the English word ‘water’ until I was much older,” said Tylar.

Emmarica added she was always warned about the stove using the Dakota word for “hot.”

Emmarica and Tylar both said they think it is very important for them to learn the language of their people, as it helps them to better understand who they are.

Both expressed how fun it has been to be in the class, although Tylar said learning the grammar and moving beyond just knowing words to putting them in sentences has been hard.

The two students said they are planning to continue learning long after this class is over in May, and each of them expressed an interest in studying Dakota at the college level if it is available.

Why is learning Dakota important?

As part of a 2011 study on indigenous languages in Minnesota, the Minnesota Indian Affairs council provided a survey of American Indian community members who offered thoughts on the importance of learning their language.

What follows are some of the comments offered in that report:

• Children need to know their culture…to be a whole person.

• The language teaches everything we need to know about how to live a good, healthy life.

• Learning the language gives people a better sense of self as they walk in two worlds.

• The way Dakota see the world is in communicating – clothes, food, emotions, weather, expressions, history, humor and self-preservation is in our language.