UMN alumna aims to revive Dakota language

Vanessa Goodthunder graduated from the University in May and is developing a Dakota language app.

Vanessa Goodthunder poses for a portrait on Monday, June 12 inside the Minnesota Capitol Building in St. Paul.

Ellen Schmidt

Vanessa Goodthunder poses for a portrait on Monday, June 12 inside the Minnesota Capitol Building in St. Paul.

Neha Panigrahy

Only five fluent Dakota language speakers remain, but Vanessa Goodthunder is working to improve that.

Growing up in the Lower Sioux Reservation, a small 10-mile-radius community, Goodthunder found a void of Dakota history in her childhood studies.

“I never saw my history in the books, I never saw my language being spoken outside of my community,” she said.

Back then, she said there were 20 fluent speakers, but they were dwindling and aging — even now, the five fluent speakers are all 55 and older.

To combat that trend, she and Ryan Dixon, lead Dakota language teacher at the Lower Sioux community, are working on a cell phone app to teach students the Dakota language.

As a child, Goodthunder learned the Dakota language in bits by listening to the community elders speak, but it wasn’t an ideal way to learn.

The app aims to be a better, and modern, way for the youth to learn. It focuses on teaching Dakota language through games like Jeopardy and Heads Up.

“We are going to revitalize the language,” she said.

Dixon and Goodthunder worked with youth from the Lower Sioux community to develop the app and cater it to the young people.

“Vanessa is really passionate about teaching kids, and she is great to work with,” Dixon said.

In May, Goodthunder graduated from the University of Minnesota with a master’s in education. Throughout her studies, she focused on her passions: the Dakota language and teaching.

“I haven’t seen us represented outside our community,” she said. “So not only did I want to teach Dakota history but also other history.”

She came to the University feeling it was the right fit.

The University has the oldest Native American Studies program in the nation and offered her a chance for new experiences.

She said a scholarship from the University’s Circle of Indigenous Nations enabled her to be successful throughout college.

Jillian Rowan, senior coordinator of the Circle of Indigenous Nations, who gave Goodthunder the scholarship, said she could always tell Goodthunder was goal orientated.

As a student, Goodthunder wrote a play in Dakota and translated a diabetes bingo game to Dakota, Rowan said.

“Academically, she has been one of our best scholars,” she said.

Goodthunder works in Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s office as a senior aide to the chief of staff. She also works as a policy advisor for the Native American community.

“When it comes to strong young women, she is the full package,” Rowan said.