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
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.