PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — This is a story about how something simple, such as a yellow sign warning that a floor is wet, might stir people to think about a deeper message.
Such is the hope of Tammy Decoteau.
She is director of Dakotah Language Institute, operated through the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribal government of the Lake Traverse Reservation.
Decoteau has made two signs that custodians can use. They bear two versions of one message. The top words say, “Caution Wet Floor.” The bottom words say, “Wakta Un Owanka Spaya.”
She wants them kept at the Capitol. “It’s a small step, but nonetheless it is a step,” Decoteau said.
In 1995, the state Legislature designated English as the common language of South Dakota.
This year, Senate Democratic leader Troy Heinert won legislative recognition that a different language was being spoken here, when European explorers first came to the region hundreds of years ago.
Come July 1, South Dakota will have a new law saying the “official indigenous language of the state is the language of the O’ceti Sakowin, Seven Council Fires, also known by treaty as the Great Sioux Nation, comprised of three dialects, Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota.”
Heinert, from Mission, is a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. He has increasingly made Lakota part of his legislative comments, especially during state Senate floor debates.
His measure, SB 126, carried Republicans and Democrats as co-sponsors. Many are from parts of South Dakota with Indian reservations where the dialects remain part of daily life for some.
Only a few people in the 105-seat Legislature are of American Indian heritage. One is a freshman, Tamara St. John, a Republican from Sisseton.
St. John recalled the day in March when Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, signed the Heinert bill into law. The occasion reinforced the impression of Decoteau.
“When we there for the signing, Tammy was mentioning how small yet powerful it is to use the language. Tammy is an incredible, humble person and it’s not her nature to be aggressive,” St. John said.
“She’s (an) encouraging, determined and dedicated advocate for our Dakota language. She explained how when we do things like place the language in everyday usable ways we give it importance,” St. John added.
“So to do this is a step forward into the everyday. Our language is not a thing of the past and it’s not about assimilation. It’s about honoring our identity. I’ve not known many of the elders to be aggressive in ways like demanding our language be placed anywhere. They teach and share with whoever comes or wants to learn.
“To do this as a gift and a small example is so much like them and Tammy’s program. It’s a living and loving thing that honors the past and the future. It connects and ties them “
St. John said signs and labels from Decoteau’s program are in a variety of spots on the reservation.
Even in restrooms.
“It makes a person note the words when you don’t know which is which,” St. John said. “I had the same experience when I was speaking on history at another tribe and didn’t know their language.”
Decoteau said the institute submitted testimony supporting Heinert’s bill. She has worked many years for language revitalization. She thanked the bill’s supporters, the governor and state Tribal Relations Secretary David Flute, a past Sisseton Wahpeton tribal president.
“We all need to work together,” Decoteau said. She added about the legislation, “This validates and acknowledges the presence of Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota people in the state of South Dakota. This is a huge accomplishment.”
She recalled a statement made 15 years ago by then U.S. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle about students who broke English-only rules being punished, sometimes beaten to death.
Since then, she said, “Our language is further on the ‘verge of extinction’ but our tribe, as are all of the other tribes in our nation, working hard to revitalize our languages rather than face its extinction. Sadly, for many of the tribes in the US, they no longer have speakers and are now tasked with resurrecting their languages.”
She continued: “And, we created these signs, if for nothing else, then for those hundreds of South Dakota’s Native American children who visit the capitol building each year who just might, even with the smallest of chances, see their language in that building. Of course, as a program dedicated to that revitalization of our language, we would love to see bilingual signage, or even tri-lingual signage, throughout our state.”
Read the final version of SB 126 that the governor signed into law March 21: