Dakota Head Start launched at Lower Sioux Indian Community

The Wikoska and Wiciyenna singers from Dakota Wicohan's girls leadership program performed traditional songs for Prairie Festival visitors at Gibbs Farm. The singers will return for more performances Sept. 15.  (Photo by Lee Egerstrom.)

By Lee Egerstrom

With a dwindling number of fluent Dakota language speakers throughout Minnesota, the Lower Sioux Indian Community (LSIC) has started a unique Dakota language Head Start school and Early Head Start program at its Minnesota River Valley community. The programs – Cansayapi Wakanyeza Owayawa Oti (“Lower Sioux Children are Sacred”) – began functioning on Aug. 1. Now, a month later, it has children in 49 of the 52 available pupil positions.

“We expect to have the final three (positions) enrolled by the end of September,” said the programs’ Mariah Wabasha.

This comes amid a flurry of activity to preserve Dakota language and culture in Minnesota. The Lower Sioux community is a key center in the effort.

Independent of the LSIC, Dakota Wicohan is a nonprofit organization incorporated at nearby Morton that operates language and culture programs for children and young adults.

While based within the LSIC area, the young people in the programs occasionally participate with other programs with Minnesota’s three other Dakota communities and with groups such as the Ramsey County Historical Society and its Gibbs Farm at St. Paul.
Eileen O’Keefe, Dakota Wicohan program director, said all these efforts come with a strong sense of urgency. “There are more in South Dakota, but there are only four Dakota as a first language speakers left in Minnesota,” she said.

Two reside at Prairie Island Indian Community and two are known at Upper Sioux Community near Granite Falls. “We lost one at Lower Sioux this past year,” she said.
“There is an urgency to rejuvenate our language and culture. It’s now or never,” she said.
The Lower Sioux Head Start programs is especially foundational for the rejuvenation process.

Early Head Start is for newborns up to three-year-old children, said Lower Sioux’s Wabasha. The regular Head Start is for three to five-year olds before they start kindergarten.

Wabasha has one of the longest job titles, in any language. She is the Eligibility, Recruitment, Selection, Enrollment attendant /Parent, Family, Community Engagement coordinator for the Lower Sioux Head Start school.

The school uses remodeled facilities that were a day care center adjacent to Lower Sioux’s Jackpot Junction casino and hotel complex. Vanessa Goodthunder is director of the education progam and studied Dakota language at the University of Minnesota, Wabasha said. Ryan Dixon and Joe Circle Bear, Dakota and Lakota language speakers, are language faculty.

Dixon and Goodthunder have translated language and curriculum materials used in the immersion language effort. Some of the materials were obtained from the Bdote Learning Center, the K-7 Dakota and Ojibwe language public charter school in Minneapolis.

Lower Sioux Head Start is a federally supported educational effort. It received a $1.9 million federal grant and $90,000 from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to get started.

As a result of its public support, the programs are open to all people although most starting participants are from the Lower Sioux and Upper Sioux communities. But not all Head Start children are Native Americans, Wabasha said.

It was “heartwarming” to see other nearby families interested in Dakota language and culture so they enrolled their children, she said.

Tied in with the Head Start school, the Lower Sioux Education Department also uses its faculty in a “Home Base” program in which they take language and curriculum to weekly sessions with 10 area families. That, too, is spreading language and culture within the Lower Sioux area.

Dakota Wicohan (“Dakota way of life”)
For older children and students, the Dakota Wicohan programs are keeping the language and culture vibrant for participants and for others who interact with them, said program director O’Keefe.

It usually has about 30 students, mostly from the Lower and Upper Sioux communities, of whom 10 are young boys, she said.

The largest groupings are the Wikoska and Wiciyenna programs, said program assistant Dylan Jubera. He accompanied that group to Gibbs Farm on July 28 where they sang and explained their programs to the historical farm’s visitors.

Wikoska translates to “young women,” Jubera said. Wiciyenna translates to “younger girl.” The latter is for girls age five to eight.

“Girls that participate in our program start as Wiciyenna. They grow and become wiser and become Wikoska. The Wikoska mentor the new Wiciyenna and the circle is complete,” he said.

The choir of girls that performed at Gibbs Farm all live and go to school in the Redwood Falls and Lower Sioux Community area.

Dakota Wicohan also has a program called Koska (young man) for boys ages five through 12. While it is a diverse cultural and language education program, it, too stresses learning Dakota language and words through singing.

A fourth program clearly stresses historical and cultural experience for Dakota people.
Sunktanka Wicayuhapi (“We Care for the Horses”) is a horse care and riding program for Wicohan’s students. The programs states that it emphasizes learning life skills such as patience, discipline and dedication.

These students also are members of a 4H Club. They learn about caring for horses before starting riding lessons at the Strong Ranch outside of Morton.

Dakota Wacohan student, horses and Lakota artist James Star Comes Out (Pine Ridge) will be back at Gibbs Farm on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 2097 W. Larpenteur Ave., St. Paul. That Saturday is dedicated to Dakota Traditional Horse Regalia and its art form that Star Comes Out has demonstrated and exhibited throughout a multistate region.

Gibbs Farm is a preserved pioneer farm adjacent to the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus that honors a family that had close ties to Dakota people living in what is now the south side of Minneapolis. These old friends would cross the Gibbs Farm traveling to wild rice lakes and streams. That prompted Ramsey County to promote the historical farm location as “Pathways to Dakota and Pioneer Life.”

For information about the Lower Sioux Head Start programs, see links at http://lowersioux.com
education and www.redwoodfallsgazette.com/news/20180803/lower-sioux-officially-opens-new-dakota-language-immersion-head-start-school.
For information about Dakota Wicohan, see https://dakotawicohan.org; and for Gibbs Farm and the Traditional Horse Regalia program, see www.rchs.com/event/family-friendly-saturday-program-dakota-traditional-horse-regalia.