Former U professor works to preserve Dakota language

Tom Ford

The most frightening moment of Carolyn Schommer’s life came when she stepped on the bus for her first day at a white school.

Schommer, 71, born in South Dakota to a Dakota father and an Ojibwe mother – who taught their daughter only the Dakota language – said that bus ride took her into a “different world.” She had to learn English and a new way of life.

Yet, at home, through her father’s insistence to always “think and speak as Dakota,” Schommer never lost her language and culture. She eventually taught Dakota language and culture for 23 years at the University and in Twin Cities school districts.

Although Schommer retained her language, she is an exception among Minnesota’s Dakota community.

Census figures and information from Dakota communities indicate only 28 fluent Dakota speakers live in Minnesota – almost all of whom are in their 60s.

“If we do not teach that which is lost then it will soon be gone,” said Dallas Ross, former chairman of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.

The possible disappearance of the Dakota language prompted a two-day conference this week partly on the St. Paul campus that addressed an urgent need to preserve and revitalize the language.

Hosted by the University’s American Indian studies department, the conference brought together about 200 Dakota elders, American Indian language experts and high school students from around the Midwest.

Ross and several other conference speakers said the “endangered” Dakota language is closely related to the culture, and losing the language would mean losing the culture.

The decline of the language has definite historical roots.

After a six-week conflict with the United States in 1862, Dakota tribes in Minnesota – who had numbered between 5,000 and 10,000 in the state’s southern half – were sent by the government to non-Minnesota communities or fled to western territories and Canada.

Eventually some Dakota returned to Minnesota. At the start of the 20th century, more than 7,000 Dakota speakers lived on small, isolated reservations and settlements in Minnesota, surrounding states and Canada.

Yet because of 20th century American assimilation policies, many Dakota children were forced to attend government-or church-run schools where they were punished for speaking their native tongue.

The danger and stigma attached to being a Dakota prompted many native speakers to abandon the language. Many wouldn’t teach it to their children.

Although the effects of these policies contributed to the crisis, several current barriers still threaten the language’s survival.

Darrel Kipp, a language revitalization researcher and founder of a language immersion program in Montana, said the biggest barrier to language preservation is that America is a monolingual society.

He said most Americans believe knowing one language is enough, and that some people treat language as a political issue.

“To speak English is to be patriotic,” Kipp said. Speaking other languages, he said, is viewed almost as treasonable.

Kipp said this view is “anti-intellectual,” and that it contributes to a severe lack of funding for language programs at the public and private levels.

Ellen Liberatori, program officer of the St. Paul-based Grotto Foundation, which contributed $20,000 to the conference, said many American Indian communities struggle with myriad problems – such as diabetes – and that those problems often take priority.

In light of poverty and health concerns, Liberatori said language restoration often would not be the “number one issue” for American Indians.

But the Grotto Foundation has committed $5.6 million over 15 years to build and support American Indian language preservation programs, said Ellis Bullock, the foundation’s executive director.

Bullock said the Grotto’s goal is to preserve cultures and that this effort is largely based on evidence that multilingual children perform better in school.

In 1994 Kipp, a member of the Blackfoot Tribe in Browning, Mont., founded the Nizipuhwashin, or Real Speak, School.

It is a total language-immersion school for reservation students in kindergarten through eighth grades where all instruction is in the Blackfoot language and no English is spoken in the building.

With classes taught by native speakers, students first learn how to speak the language before any other instruction.

Kipp said new students typically need just three months to become fluent speakers.

“The best way to preserve language is immersion schools at every level,” said AIS instructor Neil McKay.

Kipp said the school has raised close to $4 million without government funding. She also said immersion programs are better served without public support.

“Our sense now is that the most successful language programs are private endeavors,” Kipp said. “(Immersion schools) seem to work best because they have more freedom to develop innovative programs.”

He said his and similar programs “create healthier children” and hopes they offer students the same opportunity as those living off the reservation.

However, Kipp said success will depend on how much tribes are willing to spend on language programs and how much dedication they’ll put forth.

“It took hundreds of years to eradicate the (American Indian) languages,” Kipp said. “Tribes that want to reverse, better understand it’ll take time and effort.”

Of 185 American Indian languages left in the United States, Kipp said it’s likely that in 20 years fewer than 20 tribes will still have native speakers.

McKay said American Indians need to visit and learn from their elders because it’s like a “whole New York public library disappearing” when one of them dies.

“I don’t want to see that happen to my grandchildren’s generation,” Schommer said.

She said language defines a person’s identity, but that young American Indians no longer have that.

“I would not want to pass on without leaving something,” she said.

 

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