Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

To keep the Dakota language alive, a young woman looks to preschoolers

Vanessa Goodthunder plans to open an immersion school this June in Minnesota, where only five Dakota first-language speakers remain. Funding and staffing challenges often face such schools, but Ms. Goodthunder is determined to 'help heal historical trauma.'

J.p. Lawrence
Vanessa Goodthunder, director of Lower Sioux Head Start, stands beside the Redosier dogwood, also known as red willow, that is used to make traditional tobacco. Ms. Goodthunder's immersion school for children from birth to age 5 is scheduled to open in June.

As night falls on a brisk Valentine’s Day in rural Minnesota, clamoring children emblazon canvas cards with words from the indigenous Dakota language: Ina (mother). Ate (father). Canteciye (l love you). Iyotancida (I hold you very highly). 

In the midst of the moving scrum, Vanessa Goodthunder quiets the room and leads the children in a Dakota song of thanks. The scene, involving children of a variety of ages at a community center at the Lower Sioux Indian Community, is a preview of efforts Ms. Goodthunder believes will revitalize the Dakota language.

Goodthunder, who recently graduated with a master's degree in education, started an immersion school for Early Head Start and preschool students (ages birth to 5). There, teachers will speak only in Dakota, which is the first language of only five people in the state.

Lower Sioux Head Start – or as it is called in Dakota, Cansayapi Wakamyeza Owayawa Ti (Lower Sioux children are sacred) – received a $1.9 million grant from the federal Office of Head Start in September, plus another $90,000 grant in December. It will enroll up to 74 children, and is slated to open after construction of offices in mid-June.

The nascent immersion program here on the bluffs looking over the Minnesota River has roots in similar efforts to revive indigenous languages across the country. Teachers like Goodthunder hope to turn the tide of history by immersing young children in indigenous language and culture first, with English as their second language.

The current generation may be fertile ground for the replanting of the Dakota language, she says.

“Now we’re in this point where people are seeing the value of the language and don’t have fear speaking it,” Goodthunder says. “We’re seeing that sovereignty equals language, and language is a part of us, and without it we’re not whole. We need to make this effort and be intentional about it.”

A decades-long project

Reviving a language is a project that lasts decades, if not generations. These programs often face immense challenges in staffing and retention, according to teachers, administrators, and researchers involved in these efforts. Nearly a century of government efforts to stifle Native languages has left generations unable or unwilling to teach their children to speak. 

“We feel it’s a great vehicle to raise the next generation of Dakota speakers,” Goodthunder says, “and simultaneously help heal historical trauma.”

Many immersion schools model themselves after efforts by the Maori and Hawaiians in the 1980s, explains Teresa McCarty, a professor of education and anthropology at UCLA. Children attend all-Maori or all-Hawaiian classes, and in later grades learn English as a second language. Communities in New York, Arizona, and Washington teaching indigenous languages have followed this model.

The schools cannot replace the natural learning that takes place between parents and children, Professor McCarty says, but the current generation of Native parents are almost entirely monolingual English speakers. Learning that once took place at home must now take place in school.

In Hawaii, children who have gone through immersion programs are now raising children as first-language Hawaiian speakers. After nearly 40 years of effort, a language once spoken by fewer than 50 people under the age of 18 is now spoken by 18,000. “It’s a multi-generational effort and it must be evaluated that way,” McCarty explains.

More people are interested in preserving the Dakota language, Goodthunder says, and fewer are scared to speak it and participate in ceremonies since restrictive laws were lifted decades ago. But there are not enough parents now who can teach Dakota to their children. Roland Columbus, the last fluent Dakota speaker at Cansayapi, died last fall.

Goodthunder’s own family's loss of the language started generations ago. Her great-grandparents endured the infamous boarding school system, she explains. Beginning in the 1870s and lasting until the 1950s, the federal government took thousands of Native children away from their families to attend schools that forbade students to speak in their Native languages, sometimes washing out the mouths of those who did so with soap.

Her great-grandmother did not teach the language or traditional ways to Carole, her daughter, in the belief it would protect her from mistreatment. Carole in turn wanted nothing to do with Dakota and did not teach the language to her son Troy, Goodthunder’s father. Troy and others, Goodthunder says, lived in fear of punishment for speaking Dakota or performing ceremonies. Her father was receptive to Dakota but never learned it beyond some ceremonial songs. 

Goodthunder says that at age 18, she dedicated herself to the Dakota language. She studied it as an undergrad at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. After graduating with her education master’s degree last May, she worked for the state’s governor, Mark Dayton, as an advisor on tribal issues. She even had a day declared in her honor – Dec. 8, 2017  – for her efforts to educate people on Native culture.  

Lessons from others

Her immersion school draws lessons from those who have tried before her. At the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Peter Hill’s Lakota Language Childcare faced challenges representative of many programs. Lakota, like its sister dialect Dakota, teeters near extinction, with 2,000 or so speakers. Students attended the first classes at Mr. Hill’s house in 2012. To fund the first six months of the program, Hill turned to crowdfunding online.

“Teaching in immersion is one of the hardest situations in all of education,” Hill says. In his school’s case, it meant creating new textbooks and curriculum for its pre-Kindergarten students. It also meant finding those rare people who both knew Lakota and were willing to teach it. Some teachers, Hill says, learned to speak the language as they taught. 

Now six years old, Hill’s school is fully funded and he is helping other language programs. For Goodthunder’s school, language instructor Ryan Dixon has translated Hill’s curriculum from the Lakota dialect into Dakota and is teaching daily language lessons to staff. Like Goodthunder, he also learned Dakota as an adult.

Twice a week, he also teaches one of the few high school Dakota classes for credit in the state. He teaches noncredit classes for younger students, such as his daughters Aubriella, 11, and Lilyana, 8. “The language is part of who I am,” says Aubriella, echoing the words of many students in indigenous language programs.

The most important aspect of an immersion school is teaching students to value their Native identity, according to Audra Platero, who has been both a teacher and an administrator at Navajo immersion schools.

Students in immersion programs are often learning words their parents cannot understand, that many of their friends do not speak. Their parents are seldom hostile to the language, but they often cannot help, Ms. Platero says. The students grow up pulled between their Native tongue and a world in which everything on their phones, televisions, and streets signs is in English.

If students do not see language as a gateway to their identity, then they begin to abandon it, often around fifth or sixth grade. “They just become words,” Platero says. “If it’s just words, then there’s no roots or foundation.”

“When the Dakota people start speaking the language,” Goodthunder says, “then they’re going to start understanding who they are.”

No speaker who learned Dakota as a second language can ever be as fluent as someone who learned it from birth, she explains. But if her school can teach a group of children Dakota now, perhaps their children will have an easier time learning the language after that.

“We have to begin somewhere,” she says, “to start raising the next generation of speakers.” 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect changes to the Dakota name for the school and to the amount of the grant the school received in December.

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