ChangeMakers: Vanessa GoodThunder, revitalizing the Dakota language

A woman standing under a sign.
Vanessa GoodThunder stands at Bdote, which in Dakota means the place where two waters meet. The Mississippi and Minnesota rivers meet at Fort Snelling.
Jaida Grey Eagle for MPR News

Throughout November, MPR News is featuring Indigenous Minnesotans making history to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

Vanessa GoodThunder, 26, is the director of the C̣aƞṡayapi Waḳaƞyeża Owayawa Oṭi, the Lower Sioux Early Head Start and Head Start Dakota language immersion program in Morton, Minn. She is from the Lower Sioux Indian Community, a Dakota community in southwest Minnesota described as "where they paint the trees red." GoodThunder is Bdewaḳaƞṭuwaƞ Dakota and Tódich'ii'nii Dine Navajo. Her Dakota name is Sna Sna Wiƞ.

The introduction paragraph below is written in Dakota.

Haƞ Mitakuyapi, Vanessa GoodThunder emakiyapi.  Dakota ia Sna Sna Wiƞ de miye. C̣aƞṡayapi hemataƞhaƞ. C̣aƞṡayapi Waḳaƞyeża Owayawa Oṭi ed ḣtawani. Daḳota Oyate kiƞ Dakota Iapi kiƞhaƞ sdodkiyapi. Hec̣ed ibdukcaƞ.


Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be an Indigenous Minnesotan right now? 

When I thought about that, to be an Indigenous Minnesotan, or even Indigenous Minnesotan winyan (woman) ... It just means, you know my ancestors fought for me to be alive today and fought for me to know my language and my culture today. And so for me, that means that's my fight for the next piece. 

And it's not all about fighting. That means we're beautiful. We have awesome practices, and we have awesome ways of life. So I'm very excited about that. And we are going to make some big movements, not for the state, but for the nation. Right now we're really thinking about voting so I think there's a reason why folks don't want Natives to vote because we have that power, and that ability. So, I'm excited about that coming up.

What figures have shaped you?

I always think about the wonderful women that helped to grow me up. We have this horse program called Sunktanka Wicayuhapi and that’s with the nonprofit Dakota Wicohan. There's all these awesome, strong, wonderful women who gave me the tools and resources to figure out who I wanted to be in life and what my mission was in my role. I think about those women a lot who helped shape me, as well as my community of Cansayapi. They helped to tell me that I could do whatever I want. And I believe that so I took that to hopefully help others and empower them to be whatever they want as well.

What's your vision for the future generations of Indigenous people in Minnesota?

My vision is that everybody will have the access and ability to speak their language. Thus, that will help heal them, their community, and thus tribal sovereignty as a whole. And with that, that means we are going to be able to have better health systems, right, because we're remembering, reclaiming, and reconnecting — or recovering, as I heard it recently. Those systems that we've always had — and because of the historical trauma we've had — it disrupted. So with language, I really believe that it can help heal our people. So that's what I see for the future.

Who you see as a ChangeMaker in your community and who inspires you?

I see this little guy. He is 3 years old. His name is Marcus and he attends the school that we work at — Cansayapi Wakanyeza Owayawa Oti, the Lower Sioux Early Head Start and Head Start. We just opened doors so he's been there since he was like 1 years old. And now he's three and he calls me Sna Sna Win, which is my Dakota name and I've never had somebody only call me by my Dakota name. He doesn't even know my name is Vanessa in English.

I see him as being a ChangeMaker because he's already changed my heart and shown everybody that this is what language can do to empower somebody and he doesn’t even know. He just thinks, “This is my culture. This is my language. We've always had it. You’re Sna Sna Win, that's the world, let's keep going.” And I'm like, “Yes Marcus, yes, let's keep going!” So that's one of them. 

I also look to the elders and I look to my peers and I look to everybody because it's going to take all of us to make this change. That’s starting from birth all the way to the elders and to our ancestors in the past. We need to look at what they've done and learn from them. 

Where are we, and why did you choose this location? 

We are at Bdote, which is where the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers meet and that is where the Dakota people came from. This is where our creation stories came from. But we are also at the spot where we had the internment camp or concentration camp during the U.S. and Dakota war [of 1862]. It’s also the place of our genocide. 

So, I think of it a lot because it brings a lot of feelings up for me. It just keeps reminding me you know where I come from. Those are my people who fought so hard for me to be here and breathe today. And simultaneously they fought and so now I need to do my part to continue bringing back our language, thus our culture, thus our tribal sovereignty, thus our peoples’ prosperity. It’s a good place to think about that and really reflect on my purpose and why I’m placed on this earth. 

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