The Dakota Language Lives

An ambitious program at Sisseton Wahpeton College is working to “vitalize” the Dakota language on the Lake Traverse Reservation of South Dakota, creating a renewed sense of excitement and optimism.

By Erin Giffin

Voices of Our Ancestors meeting, with Director Erin Griffin seated on the left. Photo courtesy of Erin Griffin.

Dakota iapi kin ni un. 

The Dakota language lives. 

This is the vision of the Dakota Studies program at Sisseton Wahpeton College. It conveys our understanding that the Dakota language is and will remain a living language. This vision also guides us as we take steps to vitalize the Dakota language throughout our community and beyond.

Sisseton Wahpeton College is located on the Lake Traverse Reservation in northeastern South Dakota and serves the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and the surrounding region. The mission of the college is to extend and preserve the history, culture, and language of the Dakota people. The Dakota Studies program offers an associate of arts degree in Dakota Studies, as well as a Dakota Language Teaching Certificate (established in 2014), a Tribal Arts Certificate (established in 2018), the Traditional Arts Workshop Series (established in 2014), and the Voices of Our Ancestors adult Dakota Language program (established in 2017).      

When Sisseton Wahpeton College’s Dakota language vitalization began in 2014, the outlook for the Dakota language within our community was dire. For decades, we heard that we were “losing” the language and that it was “dying.” Existing language teaching methods and revitalization efforts were ineffective, but remained unchanged. The result was an inability to create new Dakota language speakers within our community.

In the last six years, however, we have begun to see this change. The narrative surrounding the Dakota language on the Lake Traverse Reservation is shifting from hopelessness to one of excitement and optimism. 

With intensive Dakota language and culture programming, Sisseton Wahpeton College has certified five new Dakota language teachers through the State of South Dakota, with four more on track to be certified in May 2020. While it is significant that we are developing and certifying new, highly qualified Dakota language teachers, our focus has evolved. Although teacher training and certification is still at the heart of our program, we are now measuring success through student acquisition of speech and comprehension of the Dakota language. We are able to do this through the Voices of Our Ancestors programming. This program, supported by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, trains individuals to understand, speak, and teach the Dakota language. Their training involves Dakota language and teaching methods classes, grammar and immersion sessions, time with fluent speakers, and technical training in recording documentation, cultural lessons, and program administration.

Significantly, the college is also assessing its instructional methods and documenting student outcomes. We are finding that what previously took individuals years to learn, is now taking months. This allows for us to change the conversation about Dakota language. Rather than talking about “loss” and “dying,” we can now talk about new speakers, vitality, and hope. 

Program Goals

Serve the needs of the community: This is what has always driven the changes and growth experienced by the program, and it always will. Dakota language programming at Sisseton Wahpeton College did not originate with one individual; it grew out of the desire of students to learn more and a community need for the development of more teachers. As we have initiated new programs, tested theories, and pursued broader educational experiences for our community, different opportunities presented themselves that helped us increase our impact. It would be inaccurate to suggest that the progress we have made at Dakota language vitalization was the result of one opportunity. We have benefited from a series of projects, ranging from a focus on traditional arts, media, and history, to direct establishment of learner and apprentice programming.

Be resilient: I have been learning the language for much of my life. I have moved around and seen different Dakota language programs in operation. I have also observed language programs from other tribes as well. A question I used to ask was, “Why can we not do this?” For many years, I saw the same thing happen over and over again: A language program would start up, people would get really excited about it, and then it would go away. I wondered why the Ojibwe were experiencing success in creating new speakers and we could not seem to get past a certain point. Now, every day of our programming at SWC is a new step, something we have never experienced before. We are seeing growth and new speakers develop. What helped us get past that “stopping point” was a combination of planning, evolution/resilience, and high expectations and standards. We have a curriculum that we follow like a road map. When something does not work, we look at why it did not work and whether it can be adjusted to make it a successful method. We conduct regular assessments that allow us to track progress in individuals, but also to show us whether our teaching and structure is effective. We are essentially trying to be proactive rather than reactive.

Student Raven LaFromboise.

Pursue vitalization of the Dakota language: The term “Vitalization” is used intentionally in our program, curriculum, and planning. When I first began teaching at SWC, I spoke in a class about language revitalization. At the time, I had some students that were elder Dakota speakers. They had an adverse reaction to my use of the word revitalization. At the time, I made an effort to find other words to describe what I was talking about, but I did not understand their reaction. Now I do. Revitalization has a connotation that we are reviving, going back to something, or that something has gone away. If you are approaching what has happened with the Dakota language and other indigenous languages for well over a century as “language loss” or “language death,” then the term revitalization might suit you. A lesson that has been repeatedly shared with us by many of the speakers that we have worked with is that the Dakota language has a spirit, it is alive. They say that it is not the language that is dying and going away; rather, it is us. 

“Dakota iapi kin wakan.  Taku wakan kinhan t’a okihi sni.”

The Dakota language is sacred.  If something is sacred, it cannot die.

– Glenn Wasicunna

As we come to understand and take for our own this different perspective on what is happening throughout many communities, that necessarily shifts how we approach what we do. Rather than focusing on “revitalization,” we are looking at how we vitalize the language throughout our community. We are not trying to resurrect or breathe life into something that is already living; rather, we are trying to help our community understand that the language is a vital part of our existence.    

We have seen the vitality of the language grow within our community in just a few years, but we also understand that how we envision that vitality–everyday use of Dakota throughout and beyond our community–will take a lifetime to achieve. We understand and accept that we are the first wave.  We will likely not see the full effects of our efforts in our lifetimes, but those same efforts will begin the shift of vitalization of the Dakota language throughout our community.

Lessons Learned

Over the past six years, we have learned many important lessons through our efforts to learn and speak Dakota. Our lessons could very well fill a book, but I will focus on the ones that seem to be repeated and most hard learned. A disclaimer to these lessons is also required. Prior to the initiation of the Voices of Our Ancestors program, I sought advice and guidance from others who had gone through a similar program. They said very similar things, I took notes, and I structured our programming to address their lessons. Or so I thought. The critical thing I did not understand at the time was that, even though I prepared and thought I knew everything that might come at us, my anticipation did not stop the struggle. I, and those that work with me, needed to go through these experiences to learn from them. Though I was told in the beginning about how important honesty and communication were, we had to go through difficult experiences to learn how to navigate those situations within our context. It is my hope, that the lessons I share here will help others, but they must also be accompanied by experience. 

Don’t take it personally. The first time this was said to me, was a few years prior to working at Sisseton Wahpeton College. At the time, I was mad and immediately thought, “Well, how can I not take it personally?!” This is now something I tell people on a regular basis.  When you are trying to learn and speak the Dakota language, it can be hard and frustrating. What compounds the difficulty is that we are not just learning another language. Our identity, our knowledge and understanding of our history, culture, and way of life are all tied to our language. Our experience with the Dakota language is complex. This complexity adds to the challenge of learning. How we treat each other, and how non-Dakota people treat us when we try to use and speak Dakota adds to the challenge of speaking. Thus, emotions are often heightened in this process. To be clear, at some point, you will get hurt trying to vitalize language within community. People make fun of us, they dismiss our efforts, they attack us as individuals. At the end of the day, we must rise above that and understand that such things have nothing to do with us, and everything to do with the other person’s insecurity. If we do not practice this way of thinking, the negativity that can surround our efforts at learning and speaking Dakota can be devastating.

Attitude is everything when learning a language. How you approach your day, your work, your lessons learned, and your successes is all impacted by your attitude. There are going to be days where your brain feels like it is shutting down. There will be days where you have been learning for months, or even years, and you suddenly feel like you know nothing. There will be days where you wonder why you are doing this and seriously consider moving to Europe to escape. This is reality and, if you are not careful, it can become overwhelming. So you messed up. Maybe you completely failed at something that you thought was an incredibly brilliant idea.  Rather than throwing it away and saying, “Well, that didn’t work,” consider why it failed and what you need to do differently, what adjustments need to be made to make it work. You have to be open to failing, to acknowledging things did not work, and be willing to learn from your mistakes. Additionally, look everywhere for answers. Do not just read books and research on your target language. I have found incredible ideas and answers from others across the country, and even the world. I have even found answers watching How the Universe Works.   

Finally, structure is vital.  When we first began the Voices of Our Ancestors program, I thought the curriculum and schedule I had created was too structured. At the same time, I made the mistake of assuming that because we all valued the language that we were all in the same place. The structure that our program has in place now does not resemble the structure we started with. We now have workbooks and mandatory meeting times for various tasks. We also require regular, extensive one-on-one meetings with the top four administrators of the program. When we began, the idea was to have four Dakota language learners in an immersive environment with a fluent speaker. We were unable to find an individual that could teach immersion and was willing to come to Sisseton Wahpeton College.  So we moved onto plan B: four language learners working under the guidance of a program administrator and a Dakota language instructor with various Dakota language classes and sessions with fluent speakers.  Though it was a good start and a nice try, the amount of work required for this effort could not be carried by just two people. Our program is now led by a director, Dakota language instructor, Dakota language facilitator, research analyst/assessment coordinator, and administrative assistant.  Each of these positions is essential to the health and stability of the program. 

Voices of Our Ancestors staff in an Elder session. Photo courtesy of Erin Griffin.

This restructuring has also afforded us with major gains. When we began the programming, we theorized that our Dakota Language learners would acquire the language more rapidly as new cohorts were added and time progressed. We have begun to see this outcome. Our learners are now acquiring language, skills, and knowledge that previously took participants in our early programming years to attain. In addition to this occurrence, a marker of the effectiveness of our programming is my own personal growth. As the director of the program, I am often unable to attend language classes and sessions. Though I am not in these spaces and not actively studying Dakota, I am learning and my comprehension has increased. This is happening because our learners and apprentices are using the language with each other, outside of the traditional classroom setting, and often with or around me. Embracing structure and planning has allowed for these outcomes to be realized.


In the last few years, I have heard advice a few times that one should not embark on efforts at language vitalization, specifically master-apprentice programs, without being fully prepared and structured. While it is important to have multiple plans and to have structure in place, you will never be fully prepared for true language revitalization. Things will happen that you cannot anticipate, you will watch your plans crumble, you will experience deep failure and frustration. But you will also experience incredible highs, you will witness things you never imagined, and you will have great success. What is important to remember is that you must be willing to adapt and evolve constantly. If you are doing the same thing for five or twenty years, then chances are, you are not being effective. People and communities change.  We learn and we grow and our efforts must evolve too. 

It is also very important to have a strong support system. You need to surround yourself with people that will encourage, appreciate, and be honest with you. When one of us feels like giving up or we get tired, there is always someone there to remind us that we are on the right path and that we can do this.    

You must be honest with yourself. The lies we tell ourselves are one of the biggest barriers to language acquisition. We tell ourselves we cannot do it, or we blame our failures on others. We say we do not have time.  The truth is, if it is a priority for you, you will take ownership of your actions and pursue it.  If you do not make learning and speaking the language a priority, then you will make any excuse to support your claim. 

Lastly, motivation, diligence, and resilience are essential to progress in Dakota language acquisition. Often, the status-quo in language education is the teaching of an antiquated and ineffective cannon of numbers, colors, and animals. Many focus on grammar and teaching literacy. We are not in a place at which literacy is our number one priority. If we are to make a shift within our community and many others facing the same issues, we must focus on speech. Our second language learners must be engaged in speaking and conversation. If we cannot speak, how then, will we read?   

Sisitunwan Wahpetunwan Oyate kin Dakota iapi ataya unkiapi kte! 

The Sisseton and Wahpeton people will be speaking Dakota everywhere!

Erin Griffin is an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate from the Westerman family. She serves as director of the Dakota Studies Department at Sisseton Wahpeton College, where she teaches and administers extensive Dakota language and arts programming.

2 thoughts on “The Dakota Language Lives

  1. I would love to access the curriculum and resources of this program to model the teaching of Indigenous Sign languages. Is there anyway I can look at this?
    Many thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *