Conversations around race and racial justice

University of Minnesota to add 2nd Indigenous language house

By Katelyn Vue | The Minnesota Daily

A new University of Minnesota Living Learning Community (LLC) called the Dakota Language House will launch next fall to advance and support students' learning of the Dakota language.

Radius Apartments in Dinkytown will house the LLC for students to live and learn Dakota together. An LLC is housing assigned for students to live together in a community dedicated to similar interests, academic goals and personal direction.

The American Indian Studies Department and the Dakota Language Program collaborated to develop the Dakota Language House to create LLCs based on languages taught in the department, focusing on language revitalization.

"To speak the language is to literally breathe life into the language because you're using the air to speak language, and so, in a metaphorical but in the literal way. So by speaking the language, we're breathing life into it and that's actually a phrase in our language," said Šišóka Dúta, a University Dakota language instructor. Dúta is an enrolled member of the Lake Traverse Reservation and he is Sisithunwan Wahpethunwan Dakhota.

As an undergraduate student, Dúta said he would have loved the opportunity to be in an environment where people speak the Dakota language daily.

"If you could find a place to do that, then you create like a little pocket or language bubble where the English language is either not spoken or severely reduced, and if you do that, you're going to progress faster in the target language, which would be Dakota," Dúta said.

In the late 1800s, the U.S. government forced Indigenous children to attend boarding schools to erase their culture, language and traditions. The boarding schools forced students to only speak English, dress in American-style clothing and convert to Christianity, The Minnesota Daily reported.

By the 1970s, most of the boarding schools closed, but Dúta said Indigenous parents and grandparents decided not to pass down the language for various reasons, including the trauma from these boarding schools.

"A lot of my people knew how to speak (Dakota) but refused to speak it because of the treatment by these schools. Other people refuse to speak it because they wanted to assimilate, so it's kind of like a variety," Dúta said. "But because many people decided 'No, I'm not going to pass it on to the next generation'… then you have like Gen X and the millennial generation who didn't grow up with their heritage language."

Recently, more people from the younger generation who did not grow up speaking Dakota, including Dúta, are learning it as adults to maintain the heritage culture, he added.

"I think a lot of people my age and even younger … are really showing interest because we want to keep it alive for the next generations coming," Dúta said.

Dustin Morrow, a citizen of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and a third-year University student, said his grandmother was the last Ojibwe speaker in his family. Because she passed away when he was three, Morrow did not have the opportunity to learn the language in his early life.

"You feel that absence, even though you don't really know it. You still feel the absence because of just everything that's put on you," Morrow said. "I just wanted it back. I guess that's why I decided language is where I want to be."

Morrow was one of the first students living in the Ojibwe Immersion House, an LLC launched by the Ojibwe Language Program last year, where students are fully immersed in the Ojibwe language. The Ojibwe Immersion House LLC influenced the vision behind the Dakota Learning House. Both language programs — Ojibwe and Dakota — are situated within the American Indian Studies Department.

Most of the students' heritage is Ojibwe, so they are learning the language of their heritage, said Brendan Kishketon, a citizen of Kickapoo and Ojibwe tribes, an associate professor and the director of the Ojibwe Language Program.

The two houses are a part of efforts to preserve and revitalize Indigenous languages.

"That's the end goal here. Not just for (students) to get exposure, not just for them to learn it, not just for them to be highly proficient," Kishketon said. "But that they become so highly proficient that when they graduate and start having a family… that they can speak to their own kids in the language thereby perpetuating the language, saving the language, keeping the language alive, so that it doesn't go extinct."

At the Ojibwe Immersion House, there is a no English-speaking rule which students need to follow while living in the house. But because most Dakota language students are enrolled at the beginner or intermediate level, the Dakota Language House is not an immersion house yet, Dúta said. He added that students who live in the Dakota Language House are highly encouraged to speak the language.

Morrow joined the University's Ojibwe Language Program after watching a nine-minute video of University students and faculty members speaking Ojibwe and sharing their personal experiences in the program and the importance of preserving the language.

Immediately after watching the video, he said he felt a strong motivation to apply to the Ojibwe Language Program but also a slight hesitation because it had been four years since he had last been in school.

However, he still decided to apply. Now, almost three years later, he will be graduating this spring with a double-major in linguistics and Ojibwe.

"When you come from a reservation, or even just a rural setting and come into the city, it's difficult to adjust. But when you're just surrounded by people that come from the same background as you and know exactly what you're going through with that kind of thing, it really makes the transition easier," Morrow said.

Next fall, Morrow will live in the Ojibwe Immersion House again because the University's linguistics graduate program accepted him.

Kishketon said he introduced a plan three years ago to establish three initiatives in the program to attract more students to enroll. Last year, he accomplished the plan, which included creating an Ojibwe language major, establishing a summer institute for American Indian high school students to learn more about the University and forming the Ojibwe Immersion House.

"Why we started it was to give the students an opportunity to learn in an environment that's not a classroom. But personally, I wanted life to be their classroom," Kishketon said.