‘Answers to everything’: Prairie Island sends first team to Dakota language bowl

Students laugh and read
Barry Hand, Dakota language and culture teacher, quizzes members Prairie Island’s Dakota Bowl team in the community center at Prairie Island Indian Community Thursday.
Nicole Neri

It's Spring Break, but Kennesey Taylor Western Boy is spending her time off memorizing the Dakota words for things like fry bread and sweet rolls.

“Oooh. You've got some tough ones,” teacher Barry Hand tells Western Boy. 

The list of words is long, but Western Boy said her team is ready for the big event later this month. 

Over zoom and during their lunch breaks at school, this team — the first Prairie Island has ever sent to the language bowl — has been prepping for the Minnesota Indian Education Association Dakota language bowl, where they’ll square off against four other teams of native speakers from around the state. 

Students look at cards
Barry Hand, Dakota language and culture teacher, quizzes members Prairie Island’s Dakota Bowl team.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

“This is definitely an experience you want as a Dakota person,” Western Boy, 15, said. “It makes me really happy.” 

Woman smiles at camera
Prairie Island Tribal Council Vice President Shelley Buck.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

And it’s a big milestone in Prairie Island’s history, said Tribal Council Vice President Shelley Buck. Competing against the other teams  is one more step forward in an ongoing effort to make learning Dakota easier for young tribal members. 

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"Our language is who we are,” she said. “It teaches us about the world around us, and how to act and interact with the world around us. It's the answers to everything."

Like many her age, Buck didn't learn Dakota as a kid because it wasn't spoken at home. Buck said her grandmother went to boarding school, where she was beaten for speaking her native language — and that trauma carried down from one generation to the next, as elders tried to shield their youngsters. 

"You don't want your children to be treated the way that you were treated. So you don't teach them those things,” she said. 

Years in the making

In the fall, Barry Hand will teach Dakota at Red Wing High School — a class on par with French or German. It'll be open to all students.

The class was years in the making, said Paul Dressen, who is education director for Prairie Island.  

“There’s always been a very strong directive from families here in the community, and also tribal leadership, to really have a strong Dakota language program, not just here in our community, for our people, but also in the public schools,” Dressen said. 

Books lined up in a row
Dakota language dictionaries sit in the community center at Prairie Island Indian Community.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

But the sticking point has been finding a fluent speaker who was also licensed to teach in the public schools, Dressen said. Once Hand was on board, Dressen said things moved quickly within the Red Wing School district’s administration — with the schools funding part of Hand’s time. 

“It's really a wonderful partnership between the schools and us,” Dressen said. 

‘A shared responsibility’

Previously, Hand taught Dakota at the Bdote Learning Center in Minneapolis, a indigenous language immersion school. 

The class at Red Wing High School is an extension of the Dakota tradition of being a good neighbor to others whether they're a tribal member or not, Hand said. 

"When these kids at Red Wing High School elect to take the Dakota language, there is that as part of their inheritance,” Hand said. “Maybe they're a German descendant or a Scandinavian descendant. This is now a shared history, a shared responsibility, because they have made that choice.”

Kids often lack confidence to speak Dakota because, unlike Spanish or French, it's not often spoken outside of class, Hand said. 

"They've got to be able to speak Dakota on their phones. They've got to be able to speak Dakota in their cars. They've got to speak Dakota at the Mall of America,” he said. 

Students study with teacher
Barry Hand, Dakota language and culture teacher, quizzes members Prairie Island’s Dakota Bowl team in the community center.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Building confidence

To help his students feel more comfortable speaking, Hand also teaches the stories behind Dakota words to show that they're rooted in tribal history. 

To make his point, he put language bowl team member Nacomi Schaffer, 15, on the spot. He asks her if she knows the Dakota word for ‘Buffalo.’

“Tatanka,” replied Schaffer. 

“And what does that mean?” Hand asked.

“The big meat,” Schaffer said.  

“Yeah, because it was the biggest meal,” Hand said. “There's messages in there. Why do we call it Tatanka? Well, cuz that's a big meat.” 

Kennessy Taylor Western Boy has competed in Dakota language bowls before, but never as part of an all Prairie Island kid team. 

So does she still get nervous?

"Definitely. Yes."

But Western Boy has taught herself to cope by drawing on deepening connections to her language and her past.

"Just like when I'm dancing at a powwow, I always think about my ancestors and my grandparents I'm dancing for. So competing in this language bowl, I'm competing for my ancestors and my grandparents."