Revitalizing the Dakota Language

Sisseton Wahpeton College, located on the Lake Traverse Reservation of South Dakota, will both study and teach Dakota through an innovative new NSF-funded research center.

By Paul Boyer

Director of Dakota Studies Joey Bird (standing) leading a Dakota 2 language class. Photo by Randi Ceroll.

Fourteen years ago, the chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of South Dakota declared a “state of emergency” in response to the rapid loss of the Dakota language within the Lake Traverse Reservation. At the time, fewer than one hundred tribal members still spoke the language with fluency.

Since then, the number of speakers has continued to decline. Today, there are about 50 fluent Dakota speakers within the tribe.

However, an ambitious new research center now under development at Sisseton Wahpeton College is offering hope for the survival and even revitalization of the language. Supported by a $3.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the newly formed Kaksiza Caŋhdeṡka (Hoop Hollow) Center for Dakota Linguistics represents a first-of-its-kind effort to both teach and study the Dakota language.

Sisseton Wahpeton College has long taught the tribe’s language as part of its undergraduate curriculum. More recently, the college also developed an apprenticeship program that pairs language learners with fluent speaking elders, and introduced a Dakota language teaching certificate. The college reports that students who complete both the apprenticeship and teaching certificate—eight so far—become either moderate or highly proficient speakers.

The new center will incorporate these existing programs, while adding several new initiatives, including development of culturally-appropriate curriculum materials and ongoing professional development training for community-based language experts.

Significantly, the Kaksiza Caŋhdeṡka Center will also undertake linguistic research. According the center’s proposal, staff will “document previously-overlooked areas of the Dakota language, study established and emerging dialects, and catalog neologisms and other emergent developments resulting from the ongoing use of the Dakota language.”

Project leaders explain that the Dakota language was initially recorded by missionaries in the mid and late nineteenth century. However, these early efforts are incomplete records of the language. According to the center’s proposal, “these resources were not exhaustive in their scope as they often reflect the interests and needs of those that compiled them and not the Dakota.” Filling in the gaps will be part of the center’s mission.

Additionally, the center’s proposal notes that a great deal has changed since the first dictionaries and grammars were written a century or more ago. New dialects have developed and, especially, new words, also known as “neologisms,” have been created. Unlike English, which freely imports words from other languages, Dakota speakers traditionally use their own language to create new words for unfamiliar concepts and objects.

“For example,” the proposal explained, “the lexeme, wiyuhbezapina is used by some Dakota-speakers in Canada to describe a wheel’s lug nut. It literally translates to English as ‘small rigid thing turned by hand.’”

College leaders stress that the center will not take on the work of creating words; within many tribes the debate over writing systems and word creation can be highly contentious. Instead, it will document and catalog the natural evolution of the language taking place within the community. 

Project leaders emphasize that the language should be studied and taught in ways that reflect and strengthen traditional culture. Curriculum materials under development will reflect the principals of “topic-based language instruction” (TBLI), which ties language learning to specific, culturally-based activities, such as hunting, fishing, gardening, or telling traditional stories. Students master the language through participation in these and other activities.

“While language learning is the primary priority,” the center’s proposal explains, “what is used to deliver the language instruction is the teaching of the topic. This differs significantly from more traditional Western approaches…which organize the syllabus around purely linguistic considerations.”

According to college President Lane Azure, this topic-based instruction—learning by doing–also reflects a more traditional educational model. “Prior to colonization or Western influence, this is how we learned our culture and language.” It is ehaƞna, he said, “the way it used to be.”

Sisseton Wahpeton College President Lane Azure. Photo courtesy of SWC.

Summer seminars and internships will also provide on-going training for teachers and community leaders working on language revitalization, and develop familiarity with the foundational concepts of linguistics. “Although it is beyond the scope set forth for the Kaksiza Caŋhdeṡka Center to produce highly trained linguists,” the center’s proposal explains, “it can lay down a foundational understanding and perhaps spark the desire to pursue more advanced training in this field.”

According to Azure, the new center is the next step in the college’s longstanding commitment to language revitalization.

“The Sisseton Wahpeton College Dakota language program has been very successful in teaching many how to speak and understand Dakota,” he said. “My first months on campus sent chills down my spine hearing how students were walking up and down the halls laughing and joking in the Dakota language.”

“Many of our graduates are now out in the community and k-12 schools teaching what they learned and how they learned it, and are continuing to succeed in language revitalization,” Azure said.

The Kaksiza Caŋhdeṡka Center for Dakota Linguistics is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program, under a strand that supports development of TCU Enterprise Advancement Centers—interdisciplinary and collaborative research initiatives that, according to the NSF, “address a critical tribal or community need or focus on a realm of research or design that is beyond the scope of individual research grants or that is of interest to multiple tribes.”

Since the first awards were made several years ago, eleven research centers have been established at ten different colleges. Most focus on water, food systems, and ecological issues. Two address engineering or manufacturing. The project at Sisseton Wahpeton College is the first to tackle language revitalization.

Paul Boyer is editor of Native Science Report.

Story published January 14, 2022.

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One thought on “Revitalizing the Dakota Language

  1. My grandmother Celine Lafromboise Buckanaga is an original fluent Dakota speaker, she also was one of the first teachers here at our Tiopsa Zina Tribal School for approximately 17yrs. Before that it was introduce by JOM After School Program, were they started teaching to the pre-schoolers. Today my grandmother is 99 years old just Celebrated that January 11, 2022, she is residing at the Tekawitha Living Center. Unfortunately being raised by her since I was a year old, I wasn’t taught, and fault of the Boarding Schools. I’m very very proud of my daughter Alayah a TZ2021 Graduate and a current freshman at SWC 2022 and determined to excell in the Language Program. Pidamiya

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