"Imagine what it would be like if the phrase “I love you” was outlawed. How would you express that emotion? The Dakotah (Sioux) language has within it many, many phrases like, 'I love you;' phrases that are also rich with meaning, phrases that are now in danger of disappearing forever, phrases like 'mitakuye owasi³.' Many people translate 'mitakuye owasi³' as 'all my relatives.' This is correct. But it is so much more than that. To me, it is an acknowledgement of all that has ever been created, in the entire universe, as your relative. To nod your head in acknowledgement to a rock or a blade of grass and to think of that rock or that blade of grass as your brother and to call him 'brother.' But, it was not just one phrase of the Dakotah language that was outlawed. It was an attempt to obliterate an entire language. People that I know today, elders I respect, were beaten for speaking."
-Tammy DeCoteau, Director
AAIA’s Dakota Language Preservation project takes place on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation. The reservation is located in Northeast South Dakota and a portion of Southeast North Dakota and is home of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate (“the tribe”). The reservation is home to approximately 4,000 of the tribe’s 10,000 members.
It is well recognized that most Native languages are in danger. Of 155 Native languages spoken in North America today, 135 are endangered. The majority of languages are spoken fluently only by grandparents. In recent years, tribes have become increasingly concerned about the loss of language and have begun developing programs to reverse this trend.
Currently, only elders over the age of 55 speak the Dakota language fluently. Younger members of the tribe may understand phrases, learn Dakota songs and otherwise have some limited knowledge of the language, but none of them are fully fluent speakers. Within a generation, the language will be lost from the community. In a recent survey conducted by AAIA staff, only 9% of the adults surveyed in Sisseton community were fluent speakers, all tribal elders. This is true of all 9 Dakota-speaking communities in the United States, although there a few small bands in Canada where the language is still more widely spoken.
By its focus on youth, our program strengthens the self esteem of the most vulnerable individuals in the community leading to better life choices. The evidence is that fluency in a tribal language increase the chances that the children involved will achieve academically, and succeed in life.
In addition, the culture of the people is intertwined within the language and thus funding language revitalization also ensures the continuation of tribal cultures. These programs have also created within the community a greater awareness of the language and its potential loss.