Minnesota Sounds and Voices: Immersed in the Dakota language

Dakota language class
Dakota language instructor Joe Sisokaduta Bendickson leads an intermediate class at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Joe Bendickson comes from a Dakota Indian family, but he didn't know about his ancestors' language until he was in high school.

"When I was little, my parents never told me we had a language," he said. "They didn't tell me because my grandparents went to the Indian boarding schools. And when they were there they weren't treated very well, and whenever they spoke the Dakota language they would be punished. That's why I didn't know that we had a language."

The experience of Bendickson's grandparents is an all-too common one in Minnesota, a state that has a Dakota name but few fluent voices. He counts just five people in Minnesota who are native Dakota speakers.

Bendickson, 33, who teaches at the University of Minnesota and for the Concordia Language Village program, is among those working to learn and teach Dakota. He aims to preserve and revive not just the language but also the Dakota culture and way of life.

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Using the native name Sisokaduto, he teaches the language through a weekend immersion program at Wilder Forest, near Stillwater, Minn., in which participants learn not only the Dakota language, but Dakota traditions and skills. Students raise a tipi, cook and eat together, and pass along customs.

"I teach the language to the people because I want them to know themselves," he said. "Because, when we walk with and carry this language and traditions and way of life into the future, when we start doing that, we will be healthier."

Estimates of how many people in the United States speak Dakota and two related languages, Lakota and Nakota, vary from 20,000-30,000. But those numbers are deceptive. Although the languages are related, they are also different, said Glenn Wasicuna, a Dakota language teacher who lives in Good Thunder, Minn.

Wasicuna said the three languages are like the dialects of three English speakers, one from the Midwest, one from the Deep South and one from the East Coast. When people who speak them have a conversation — there's a lot of understanding, but some confusion over certain expressions.

This Concordia language immersion weekend is supported in part by Minnesota taxpayers through the state's Legacy Fund, as are some of the Dakota language programs at the University of Minnesota. The University of Minnesota's Dakota language program is part of the American Indian Studies Department founded in 1969, one of the first in the country.

Dakota language skit
Liz Cates, right, and fellow Dakota language students Vivian Bain, left, and Kirk Perez participate in a skit during a class at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Legacy fund money also supports a range of kindergarten through college programs to preserve Dakota and the state's other indigenous language, Ojibwe. According to the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, since 2009 Legacy funds totaling more than $1.2 million have been spent to teach the languages.

For the 30 students who attended the Concordia language camp last month, learning Dakota helps them connect with age-old traditions that even community elders have lost touch with.

"My grandma is pretty much our sole connection to that culture and even she doesn't know as much as she'd like to," said Liz Cates, 20, a University of Minnesota Dakota student and teaching assistant for the program.

Cates, who is not an enrolled member of any tribe or band, said more than half of those in the university's Dakota classes are of European ancestry.

Except for her grandmother's Dakota lineage, Cates said she was not familiar with the culture. The 20-year-old Prior Lake native said learning Dakota is a way for her to exercise what she calls a pent up urge to learn more.

"Why there are no cuss words, you know, and why there is no real word that translates to, 'sorry,' because there wasn't a reason to be," she said. "There was a different set of virtues and values held by these people and that shows through the language."

For Bendickson, who was born in Sisseton, S.D. and grew up in the Twin Cities, seeing the students learn is a way of honoring his grandfather, who taught him his first words of Dakota.

"My grandfather, he is no longer here; he left and is now in the spirit world," he said. "The last time we talked, we only spoke Dakota, and I remember that very well. I think he liked it."

MPR was invited along to one of the immersion weekends, to listen in as part of our continuing Minnesota Sounds and Voices series. Click here to hear the story.