SISSETON, S.D. (KELO) – The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Native Americans hard. In some cases, elders of tribes have been lost, resulting in pieces of history going with them.
“We lost well over 13 tribal members to COVID, which is a lot when you think about the concentration of our community. We all live in this community together and in one way or another, we’re all connected. So, when we lose one, it impacts a whole lot of people,” tribal secretary Myrna Thompson said.
When these members of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe are language-speakers, history is lost, too.
“Language is our identity and it’s really, our worldview is embedded in that. So it’s important that we strive to bring that back and teach that to our younger generation so that they can also grow up with that same worldview that our elders did,” Jeremy Red Eagle, program manager for the Dakota Language Institute, said.
That’s why the tribe has been working to make sure the Dakota language is preserved.
“Here on Sisseton-Wahpeton, we are around 40 speakers that we have left that speak our language fluently and so I work with them on documenting and preserving and teaching our Dakota language,” Red Eagle said.
The language is an important aspect of who they are.
“There’s been a lot done to our people to eradicate that and us still being here shows that, that we’ve survived that, but we have a lot of work to do to really mend and bring back our way of life,” Red Eagle said.
Last week, tipis were set up as a memorial to honor loved ones lost to the pandemic. For five days, a fire burned while the tipis were lit up each night. People came together to pray and remember.
“It’s showing our honor of remembering our loved ones that lost their battle to COVID-19. Not only that, there’s other issues that are in our community that we lost loved ones for. You know, murdered, missing Indigenous Native Americans and other issues that are going on. For us to come together in one solid prayer and one good heart in the community here,” tribal chairman Delbert Hopkins Jr. said.
“A remembrance and a way for us to build ourselves back up from this pandemic and to come back and have that slight of hope that we will get through this and everything will be okay,” Miss Sisseton-Wahpeton Blossom Tiomanigi said.
“It’s just a great, a great environment to be out here and just to feel our culture and to embrace all of it. So, it’s been very important and very powerful,” Missy Huff, who helped run the memorial, said.
Alana Little Bird came up with the idea for the tipis after seeing a similar event take place in her home state of Montana.
“I believe it’s helped the community a lot. I believe a lot people are feeling really good about this. So I hope to continue to do that in the future,” Little Bird said.
A message of hope through unity and prayers.
“We’re a nation of the Buffalo People, the Star Nation People, and we’re engrained, we’re born with that prayer. We need to stick together, continue that prayer. Even our younger generations are learning to pray in school and that’s good to see. And that’s coming from those language and our culture teachers to hand that down. So, as long as we keep a strong prayer and as long as we unite and stay strong together, and not divide, we’ll get past this just like our ancestors did. We come from a strong nation so we will get past this,” Hopkins said.