AGENCY VILLAGE, S.D. (KELO) – November is Native American Heritage Month, but schools and organizations on reservations across KELOLAND celebrate Native American heritage all year long. One way they do that is by teaching Indigenous languages.
‘Han mitakuyepi, Lauren Soulek emakiyapi ye KELOLAND News emantohan.’ Hello relatives, my name is Lauren Soulek and I am from KELOLAND News. That’s a phrase I learned to say while spending time at the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakotah Language Institute. A simple sentence that can help build a bridge between cultures and preserve a language.
“I encourage more to come to learn the Dakotah language,” Solomon Quinn, a fluent Dakotah speaker, said.
Every Tuesday a group meets to pass down the Dakotah language to younger generations.
“It’s our identity. It’s something that has been with us since the beginning of time. It’s something that we can’t afford to lose. It’s something that is one in the same with our identity as Dakotah people,” Ricardo Bertsch, program director with Dakotah Language Institute said.
Britannica considers the Dakotah language to be endangered. Some sources say there are only 290 fluent speakers of the language out of an ethnic population of around 250 thousand people.
“The number of Dakotah language speakers is not as much as we’d like but we’re all coming together in a concerted effort to make sure we’re all supporting one another,” Bertsch said. “And making sure that the manpower that we have, we cherish. We use that and leverage it willingly in sharing of ourselves to make sure our language goes into the future.”
Some of the young learners may have started learning a few Dakotah words from their grandparents, but now they are practically fluent.
“I started learning when I was a boy. He started teaching me when I was a little boy, I asked him to teach me so I had a little bit, yeah, how to talk but these guys taught me, they taught me by themselves,” Caleb Brush Breaker, a Dakotah language learner, said.
Akisa Peters, a language learner at the institute, now even teaches the language himself at the Sisseton Wahpeton College.
“I like it. It’s fun. I get to talk about something I enjoy, talking in Indian all the time and teaching other people. Try to save it or whatever,” Peters said.
“It’s so beautiful. It’s so sacred. There’s a lot of harmony in it. That’s why I want to live a long, long time to teach the young ones,” Quinn said.
The teaching goes beyond the Tuesday meetings, though. The Dakotah Language Institute is also a publishing agency — making flashcards, posters, cards and more.
“A lot goes behind the curtain and those people we’re equally thankful for — program support, curriculum making, publishing of materials, creating materials for Dakotah language learning, cultural teaching,” Bertsch said.
The materials go to tribal schools, other Dakotah-speaking communities and colleges.
“We’re happy to be part of a movement, a large movement, to make sure that materials are being translated from our elders, our knowledge keepers, and they’re getting into the hands of the young ones at our schools,” Bertsch said.
Helping even the littlest of learners understand their culture.
“It’s just teaching them, you know, having them grow up with that and, you know, keeping that going,” Jasmine Eder, a Dakotah language learner, said.
“When I hear the little ones speak Dakotah, it excites me just to hear them. For me to witness that, it’s so beautiful. It’s like the language is being born again,” Quinn said.
“The Dakotah language is sacred and something that sacred can’t die. It’s still alive, still here, still speaking it,” Brush Breaker said.
The Dakotah Language Institute hopes to soon be able to sell their language learning materials on Amazon so even more people can learn the Dakotah language.