New Dakota language app helps bridge the gap between the old and the young
Khloe Cavanaugh learned some Dakota words from her grandfather, who grew up on the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota. He was one of the few first language fluent speakers on the reservation.
“I have a Native American name and I didn’t know how to say it in Dakota, so he taught me how to say it and how to introduce myself,” Cavanaugh said.
“Haŋ Mitáuyepi, Čhaŋte waštéya napé čhiyúzapi. Dakȟóta ia Heȟaka Thasina Wakȟaŋ Wi emákiyapi. Washiču ia Khloe Cavanaugh emákiyapi.”
“(Hello my friends and relatives, I greet you with a good heart and a handshake. My name is Dakota Heȟaka Thasina Wakhaŋ Wi and my English name is Khloe Cavanaugh.)”
Cavanaugh, a freshman at the University of Minnesota, is studying beginning Dakota and plans to major in American Indian studies with a focus on language acquisition. And now she has a new tool—co-created by Dakota’s teacher, Šišókadúta—to help her remember words and pronunciation: a Dakota dictionary app.
The free application is the so-called Dakhód Iápi Wičhóie Wówapi, was unveiled last month at Grand Casino Mille Lacs in Onamia, Minnesota. It contains over 28,000 Dakota words and includes a Dakota language keyboard and audio recordings of native speakers – both male and female – saying the words so users can learn how to pronounce them. This is a vital resource not only for language retention, but also for learning vocabulary as you go. There is no Google Translate or other online dictionary for Dakota.
The app aims to bridge the gap between the handful of native speakers — many in their 80s and 90s — and the younger generation, like Cavanaugh. Around the 1950s, many Dakota speakers stopped speaking and passing on the language to their children, in part because of Native American residential schools that punished and shamed students for speaking their language.
The same thing happened in Cavanaugh’s family. Neither of his parents speak Dakota, but now he teaches them words over the phone and practices Dakota conversations with them when he goes home and translates when they don’t understand. The app makes work easier, as a resource is right in your pocket.
Šišókadúta, whose English name is Joe Bendickson, is its language director Dakhota Iápi Okhódakičhiye, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating materials to help learn the Dakota language. In 2017, the nonprofit contacted The Language Conservancy, which works to preserve and promote endangered languages, and received a grant from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council to create a dictionary app. After six years of recording – and re-recording – the words, the free app is now available to anyone.
“First language speakers are all old,” said Šišókadúta. “People can’t live forever. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them, but we have to plan for those eventualities. Eventually these people will disappear and we need to get as many words out as we can while they are still here with us.”
Like Cavanaugh, Dakota skipped a generation in Šišókadúta’s family. Three of his grandparents spoke the language fluently, but did not teach it to their children. Šišókadúta started studying in 2000 and now considers himself very proficient. When he first started, he said, there wasn’t much interest in learning Dakota. But in the past five years, interest has skyrocketed, especially among Dakota youth. The University of Minnesota classes used to have 8-15 people sign up for the beginner level. Now you get 50-60.
Wil Meya, CEO of The Language Conservancy, said it’s a trend he sees working with other languages as well. The nonprofit has created dictionary apps and e-learning materials for 50 languages, including Lakota, Apache, Ho-Chunk and Ute.
“We know that young people really want to learn their language,” Meya said. “We just have to put it in a form that is accessible to them. Sometimes you hear young people say that apps are like having grandma or grandpa in their pocket. And often their grandmother or grandfather provides the voice in the app.”
Šišókadúta and Dakhóta Iápi Okhódakičhiye recorded words spoken by seven native speakers from the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe in South Dakota, the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, the Whitecap Dakota First Nation band in Saskatchewan, Canada, and the Birdtail Sioux First Nation in Mandria. Šišókadúta and another Dakota language instructor at the University of Minnesota also recorded some words to fill in the gaps when the audio files weren’t clear enough.
Much of the state of Minnesota is ancient Dakota territory, but many were forced to move after the US-Dakota War of 1862. Today, Minnesota has four federally recognized Dakota communities—and only one native Dakota speaker of those communities.
“This is a critical time for the language, which was once the language of the state,” Meya said. “In the pre-contact period, most people in the area spoke Dakota or if not Ojibwe. But it was a language used by thousands of people for tens of thousands of years.”
The dictionary app itself is just a tool for language learning, but it is part of a larger effort to revive the language and even create future generations of first language speakers. The nonprofit continues to add words to the app and interviews with elders who may have new insights into the language. Work is in progress at Šišókadúta.
“The dictionary app won’t speak the language for you, it’s up to you to speak it and use it, read it and write it,” he said. “But it’s a tool for learning. I hope all our people can take advantage of this. Every word you say breathes life into the language.”
Šišókadúta was pleased to see that more and more Dakota students are interested in learning the language. When he started school, he said about 50% of his class was Dakota. The rest were non-Native or non-Dakota who were interested in the language. His lessons today are 80-90% Dakota or from nearby nations.
Ava Hartwell, who is Oglala Lakota, is one of Šišókadúta’s students. At first, she was interested in learning Lakota, but without a formal class, she found it difficult to learn on her own. Although still in high school at Avalon Charter School in St. Paul, the 16-year-old asked to join Šišókadúta’s class to learn Dakota, which is very similar to Lakota. He is now in his second semester.
Hartwell said she uses the new Dakota app every day to expand her vocabulary. At the grocery store, you pull out your phone to look up the names of the foods you bought, such as green beans (omniča suthúŋ šni) or soap (haípažaža).
This is much easier than using outdated dictionaries that already exist. The last meaningful dictionary was published by the missionaries in 1852.
For Hartwell, Dakota’s access to learning was transformative. Her father is Lakota, and she was introduced to the culture through her family, but it wasn’t until she began studying Dakota that she really connected with her identity.
“Personally, I’ve seen a huge increase in my confidence,” he said. “Learning the Dakota language also means learning the Dakota way of thinking and ways of our people. You learn to appreciate everything as it is.”