Preserving the Dakota language

GRANITE?FALLS?- On Monday night, Dakota Wicohan, an organization dedicated to remembering, reclaiming and reconnecting to the language and culture of the Dakota people had a viewing in Granite Falls of a documentary about preserving the memories and language of the Dakota elders – “We Cherish the Dakota Language.”

“This video is part of the remembering,” said Sharon Pazi, executive director of Dakota Wicohan. “To see how the elders spoke it and to honor them.”

The event was co-hosted with Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) Granite Area Arts Council (GAAC), Granite Falls Lutheran Church and Yellow Medicine East.

“In 2008, we started interviewing the remaining speakers, elders of the four Dakota communities,” said Teresa Peterson, a planner with Dakota Wicohan. “We ended up with all this footage, from which we made up this documentary about the Dakota. We focused on the eastern Dakota dialect, which includes all of Minnesota.”

Out of a language community that was flourishing within the memory of living men and women, they found only five who spoke Dakota as their first language within the four communities in Minnesota. Most of them are gone now.

The task of editing 25 hours of footage into an hour-long documentary fell to Simon Goldenberg, a student from Portland, Ore. who majored in First Nations studies at the University of British Columbia. But for Goldenberg, it was also a journey to his roots; his mother is an enrolled member of the Lower Sioux community.

“As part of the program you have to do an internship, so I decided to go where I have family,” Goldenberg said. “When I graduated in 2012, they hired me full time to work on the film.”

The documentary showed the testimony of Dakota speakers who told stories of being beaten in school for speaking their language, of a generation whose parents refused to teach them Dakota to spare them the same experience and the elders who urged young Dakota not to let their language die.

“My grandmother was fluent, my mother could understand it, and I knew words but couldn’t speak in sentences,” Pazi said.

Now Pazi, along with other staff members of Dakota Wicohan, takes language lessons twice a week and works to develop programs using modern language-teaching technology.

It’s not just for Dakota people; anyone is welcome to learn about this language so rich in the history of the land it is rooted in.

Introducing the film, Peterson said, “I greet you as a Dakota person from the Place Where They Dig the Yellow Medicine. This is Minnesota Macoche, ‘The Land of Cloudy Waters.’ So you can see, you speak Dakota every day!”