Wicoie Nandagikendan Puts Joy Into Language Learning

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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.”

“Why?”

“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.