One thing Barry Hand is trying to get across to his students is this: Language is power.
For the first time in years, students at Red Wing High School can take a class in the Dakota Language. It’s not a random choice. Around 6.5% of the school district’s student body is Native American, and the city of Red Wing itself is just south of the Prairie Island Indian Community.
For a people and a language that has faced marginalization for years, it’s a step toward rebuilding the culture and its relationship with the wider community.
“I really think this class has had a real positive impact on our building,” Red Wing High School Principal George Nemanich said. “It’s allowed our students to expand their view of the different cultures within our community.”
On Jan. 9, Hand wrote a number of words on the whiteboard at the front of the room, under the heading “daily expression.” They were words like “usually” (Eyasna), “maybe” (Nacece), as well as the acronym “WTH”, followed by its Dakota counterpart “Waƞeya.”
Hand pronounced “Waƞeya,” which was followed by the chorus of 30 students saying it back to him in unison. Then they repeated the process.
“You have to know how to express yourself in the language, otherwise language doesn’t live,” Hand told the class. “We don’t have this language that’s saintly. We have all the expressions in Dakota that you have in English.”
‘The language belongs to them’
For the Native American students in the class, learning Dakota is a way to become more connected to their families, their culture, and even the city they live in.
However, Native students are not the only ones taking the class. One student, Brandon Hudson, said he was interested in taking the language since he has friends who are Indigenous.
Hand doesn’t like exclusionary education, regardless of the makeup of his class. There are white students, Black students, Indigenous students, as well as those who come from blended backgrounds.
“They know from class that the language belongs to them,” Hand said. “They’re not taking a language and saying ‘I don’t have an investment in this language’ — because they live in Red Wing. They live in the Dakota homelands.”
The students hope to see more resources coming down the road. Darlyn Fiddler said she would love to see more classes available for younger students. Another student said they would love to see a TV show made in Dakota.
“It’s nice to finally have all the younger generations be able to keep this going — to not have it end,” student Jayme Johnson said about the language.
Nemanich said the school might have more options in the future, and he hopes the school will eventually create three levels of the language class.
Dakota content scarce
That being said, there are challenges to learning the language, one of which is simply finding enough content to work with. Even in an age of overwhelming information access, it’s hard to find content in the Dakota language.
And the content that is available isn’t always helpful. Hand had a stack of Dakota language textbooks on his desk, each of which takes a different approach to spelling the Indigenous words.
Still, they work with what they have. On Monday, Hand and a student were huddled over a laptop, trying to download a Dakota language keyboard so she could type some of the sounds not represented in the standard Latin-based option.
The students also found the Dakota nation’s creation story in the language on the platform SoundCloud.
In some small way, the fact that the students are learning the language is adding to its prevalence, Hand and his students expressed. Maybe one day, they’ll be the ones creating the content for others to learn from.
“I’m glad that people are coming over to see it,” student River Christiansen said about the class. “I do like that it’s having more of a spotlight.”
An urgent project
Broadly speaking, there’s some urgency in the task of passing Indigenous languages onto the next generation. According to Hand, 70% of native Dakota speakers — meaning those who grew up speaking it at home — died during the two years of the pandemic. According to the New York Times, Native Alaskans and Native Americans died at almost twice the rate during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to their white counterparts.
That reality was felt at home in Red Wing.
“The last fluent speaker at Prairie Island passed away because of COVID,” Hand said.
While teaching on Monday, he tried to emphasize the importance of working on the language outside the classroom. Use it at home. Use it in the halls. Use it whenever and wherever you can.
“When are we going to make Dakota a priority?” Hand asked his students. “I understand life happens; I understand things come up. But when are we going to make Dakota a priority in our life?”
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