In late July 2018, Cansayapi Wakanyeza Owayawa Oti, the Lower Sioux Dakota Immersion Early Childhood Head Start program officially opened.

This past June the school hosted its first graduation, with eight students moving on to continue their education in Kindergarten.

The graduation ceremony was held in conjunction with the annual tribal school education celebration that also honors high-school graduates and educators from the Lower Sioux program who are having an impact on the education community.

According to Vanessa Goodthunder, who serves as the director for the Head Start program, the graduation celebration is truly a historic event, as it demonstrates the success the community is having in not only molding the minds of its children but also in helping to bring back the Dakota language into the lives of future generations.

The Dakota language defines the culture of the community, said Goodthunder, adding it is much more than just learning a different language. The immersion program is teaching the students who they are as Dakota people. 

For Goodthunder, the first year of the Lower Sioux Head Start immersion program was a great success, adding the addition of a program like this in this part of the state is long overdue.

“We are the only program in southern Minnesota,” said Goodthunder, adding there are a number of programs in northern Minnesota that have been in existence since the 1960s.

The reason for the success of the program can’t be attributed to one person, said Goodthunder, as every member of the staff from the teachers to the cooks play an important role in ensuring the program is making a difference in the lives of those who attend. There are currently 20 people who are employed at the school, and 74 kids are being served from birth through age five.

The Head Start program works with students and their families at the school, and members of the staff also conduct home visits. The goal of the program is to help prepare students for the next stage of their education but also to provide a place for the students, and their families, to learn the Dakota way of life.

During the school day, students have time that is spent in complete immersion of the Dakota language, which means during that time all that is spoken to them is Dakota.

Goodthunder added the children will learn English, but she added the hope is that eventually the Dakota can become their first language. Statistics show children who have learned a second language have a greater level of academic success.

The Head Start immersion program is something the community wants, said Goodthunder, adding the plan is to expand the Dakota language program in the community as a whole.

The school is currently working on offering language learning opportunities online through its Facebook Page, and the plan is to continue to expand that. That way, Goodthunder said, even more people have access to language learning.

What is happening at the Lower Sioux Head Start program is very exciting, said Goodthunder, and she is convinced this is a sustainable model that is going to make a big difference in the lives of the next generation of the Dakota and for generations to come.

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– Photo courtesy of Bruce Helsper