Prairie Island sends first team to Dakota language bowl



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It’s spring break, but Kennesey Taylor Western Boy is spending his free time memorizing Dakota’s words for things like fried bread and sweet buns.

“Ooh. You have some tough ones,” teacher Barry Hand told Western Boy.

The word list is long, but Western Boy said his team is ready for the big event later this month.

Over Zoom and during their lunch breaks at school, this team – the first Prairie Islander ever sent to the language bowl – prepared for the Minnesota Indian Education Association’s Dakota Language Bowl, where they will face off against four other teams. of Native speakers from all over the state.

Barry Hand, a Dakota language and culture teacher, interviews members of the Prairie Island Dakota Bowl team. Credit: Nicole Neri for MPR News

“It’s definitely an experience you want as a Dakota person,” said Western Boy, 15. “It makes me really happy.”

And it’s a milestone in the history of Prairie Island, said Tribal Council Vice Chair Shelley Buck. Competing against the other teams is one more step in an ongoing effort to make it easier for younger tribesmen to learn Dakota.

“Our language is who we are,” she said. “It tells us about the world around us and how to act and interact with the world around us. It’s the answer to everything.

Shelley Buck, Vice President of the Prairie Island Tribal Council. Credit: Nicole Neri for MPR News

Like many his age, Buck didn’t learn Dakota as a child because it wasn’t spoken at home. Buck said his grandmother went to boarding school, where she was beaten for speaking her mother tongue – and that this trauma was passed down from one generation to the next, as elders tried to protect their young.

“You don’t want your children to be treated like you were. So you don’t teach them those things,” she said.

years of preparation

In the fall, Barry Hand will teach Dakota at Red Wing High School, a class on par with French or German. It will be open to all students.

The class took years to prepare, said Paul Dressen, director of education for Prairie Island.

“There has always been a very strong directive from families here in the community, as well as tribal leaders, to really have a strong Dakota language program, not just here in our community, for our people, but also in public schools. “, said Dressen. .

Dakota language dictionaries are located in the Prairie Island Indian Community Community Center. Credit: Nicole Neri for MPR News

But the sticking point was finding a fluent speaker who was also licensed to teach in public schools, Dressen said. Once Hand was on board, Dressen said things moved quickly within the administration of the Red Wing School District — with schools funding some of Hand’s time.

“It really is a wonderful partnership between the schools and us,” Dressen said.

“A shared responsibility”

Previously, Hand taught Dakota at the Bdote Learning Center in Minneapolis, a native language immersion school.

The Red Wing High School class is an extension of the Dakota tradition of being a good neighbor to others, whether they are tribal or not, Hand said.

“When these kids at Red Wing High School choose to learn the Dakota language, it’s part of their heritage,” Hand said. “Perhaps they are of German origin or of Scandinavian origin. It’s now a shared story, a shared responsibility, because they made that choice.

Children often lack the confidence to speak Dakota because, unlike Spanish or French, it’s not often spoken outside of class, Hand said.

“They need to be able to speak Dakota on their phones. They must be able to speak Dakota in their car. They have to speak Dakota at the Mall of America,” he said.

Barry Hand, Dakota language teacher

“They need to be able to speak Dakota on their phones. They must be able to speak Dakota in their car. They have to speak Dakota at the Mall of America,” he said.

Dakota language and culture teacher Barry Hand interviews members of the Prairie Island Dakota Bowl team in the community center. Credit: Nicole Neri for MPR News

Building Trust

To help his students feel more comfortable speaking, Hand also teaches the stories behind the Dakota words to show that they are rooted in tribal history.

To make his point, he put 15-year-old Language Bowl crew member Nacomi Schaffer on the spot. He asks her if she knows the Dakota word for ‘Buffalo’.

“Tatanka,” Schaffer replied.

“And what does that mean?” Main asked.

“The big meat,” Schaffer said.

“Yeah, because that was the biggest meal,” Hand said. “There are messages in there. Why do we call her Tatanka? Well, because it’s big meat.

Kennessy Taylor Western Boy has competed in Dakota language bowls before, but never as part of a Prairie Island children’s team.

So, is she still nervous?

“Absolutely yes.”

But Western Boy has learned to cope by drawing on deep connections to his language and his past.

“Just like when I dance at a powwow, I always think of my ancestors and my grandparents that I dance for. So competing in this language bowl, I’m competing for my ancestors and my grandparents.

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