Wicoie Nandagikendan Puts Joy Into Language Learning
Saturday, November 01 2014
Written by Laura Waterman Wittstock,
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It is always difficult to get to the reasons why teaching Native languages to very young children in Minneapolis is unusual and rare. Today, the unlikely leadership for doing that and support for languages comes from a U.S. Senator from Montana, a state most known to be conservative.

Montana sits in the middle of the ten poorest states according to Forbes magazine and it moves along with its staple farming, ranching and mining, but contrary to ideas of conservative cowboys, it also sits in the middle politically, having elected both Republicans and Democrats to statewide offices. Jon Tester won office in 2007 and the other Democratic Senator, former Lt. Governor John Walsh, has been serving since February 2014 by appointment of Gov. Steve Bullock. He took office after Democratic incumbent left to become U.S. Ambassador to China.

Tester has wasted little time since he took office to look deeply at the needs of the tribes and nations. He became chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs this year when former chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) stepped down.

Tester’s visit to Minneapolis and the Wicoie Nandagikendan program is another illustration of how he sees Indian country: he wants to see communities in action.

Jennifer Bendickson is executive director of the program and she demonstrates its importance to the Indian community by telling a little story. “The Wicoie children went on a field trip to a local apple orchard. It was a warm, sunny day and as the group was leaving, the grower came up to me and said we were his favorite visitors his orchard.”


“It was because he saw the little children thank the trees for their apples.”

“Those are the kinds of things that make me happy to know our little children are bringing our culture with them wherever they go,” Bendickson said.

Jewell Arcoren also works with Wicoie. She is an optimistic person with an obvious love for the children that include her own grandchildren, who are learning Dakota. Two girls have now enrolled in Bdote Learning Center, an immersion school that teaches in the Ojibwe and Dakota languages.

But Wicoie also struggles, like many small non-profits, to raise sufficient funds to keep the project going. Arcoren and Bendickson are busy preparing for another taco sale on Nov. 7. The sale is from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the preschool immersion program (2438 18th Ave. S., Minneapolis). Wicoie will also have a Spring community feast and a cook-off contest during Indian Month in 2015. All of these events are open to the public.

For those who are interested, the Wicoie Nandagidendan web site has phrases with pronunciations in Ojibwe and Dakota and information about program activities.

If that sounds incredibly busy, there’s more. Wicoie will be visiting the state legislature to provide information about the program and others like it to keep state Legacy funds going to the dozens of language programs throughout the state. In preparation Wicoie received resolutions of support for this work from the Indian Affairs Council, representing all eleven reservations in the state; the Urban Affairs Advisory Board to the Council, and the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors group.

Bendickson and Arcoren appeared on First Person Radio on Oct. 29 to discuss their work and they brought a three-year old from the Wicoie program. The youngster sang three songs in Dakota. It was a stunning example of what can happen when language is taught to very young children. Wicoie starts with babies as young as 16- to 18-months, when language begins, on up to preparation for kindergarten. Data is showing that much higher percentages of Wicoie kids are ready for kindergarten than other groups. It’s a program that we should all know about.

Laura Waterman Wittstock is a retired nonprofit executive and now hosts First Person Radio with Roy Taylor on KFAI-FM, Wednesdays at 9 a.m.

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