New Dakota language app helps bridge gap between elders and youth
A screenshot of the new app that helps people learn the Dakota language.
Khloe Cavanaugh learned some Dakota words from her grandfather growing up on the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota. He was one of the few fluent first language speakers on the reservation.
“I have an Indian 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,” said Cavanaugh.
“Haŋ Mitáuyepi, Čhaŋte waštéya napé čhiyúzapi. Dakȟóta ia Heȟaka Thašina Wakȟaŋ Wi emákiyapi. Wašiču ia Khloe Cavanaugh emákiyapi.”
“(Hello my friends and relatives, I greet you with a good heart and handshake. My Dakota name is Heȟaka Thašina Wakhaŋ Wi and my English name is Khloe Cavanaugh.)”
Cavanaugh, a freshman at the University of Minnesota, is studying beginners Dakota and considering a major in American Indian studies, with a focus on developing mastery of the language. And now, she has a new tool — co-created by her Dakota teacher, Šišókadúta — to help her remember vocab words and work on pronunciation: a Dakota language dictionary app.
The free app, called Dakhód Iápi Wičhóie Wówapi, was unveiled last month at an event at the Grand Casino Mille Lacs in Onamia, Minnesota. It contains over 28,000 words in Dakota and includes a Dakota language keyboard and audio recordings of first language speakers — both men and women — saying the words so users can learn how they are pronounced. It’s a vital resource not just for preserving the language, but also for learning vocab on the fly. There’s no Google Translate or other online dictionary for Dakota.
The app is meant to bridge the gap between the handful of Native speakers left — many in their 80s and 90s — and the younger generation, like Cavanaugh. Many Dakota speakers stopped speaking the language and passing it onto their children around the 1950s, partly due to Native American boarding schools, which punished and shamed students for speaking their languages.
In Cavanaugh’s family, the same thing happened. Neither of her parents speak Dakota, but she now teaches them words over the phone and practices conversations in Dakota with them when she goes home, translating if they don’t understand. The app makes it easy, with a resource right in her pocket.
Šišókadúta, whose English name is Joe Bendickson, is the linguistic director of Dakhóta Iápi Okhódakičhiye, a nonprofit dedicated to creating materials to help people learn the Dakota language. In 2017, the nonprofit reached out to The Language Conservancy, which works to preserve and promote endangered languages, and received funding from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council to create a dictionary app. After six years of recording — and re-recording — words, the free app is now available for anyone to use.
“The first language speakers are all elderly now,” Šišókadúta said. “People can’t live forever. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them, but we have to plan for these contingencies. Eventually those people will be gone, and we have to get as many words as we can while they’re still here with us.”
Like Cavanaugh, Dakota skipped a generation in Šišókadúta’s family as well. Three of his grandparents spoke the language fluently, but they didn’t teach their children. Šišókadúta began learning it in 2000 and now considers himself highly proficient. When he first started, he said there wasn’t a lot of interest in learning Dakota. But in the past five years, interest has skyrocketed, especially among young Dakota people. His classes at the University of Minnesota used to have between 8 and 15 people signed up for the beginner level. Now he gets 50-60.
Wil Meya, CEO of The Language Conservancy, said this is a trend he sees in working with other languages, too. The nonprofit has made dictionary apps and e-learning materials for 50 languages, including Lakota, Apache, Ho-Chunk and Ute.
“We know that young people truly want to learn their language,” Meya said. “We just need to put it into a form that is accessible for them. We sometimes hear young people say the apps are like having grandma or grandpa in their pocket. And often it is their grandma or grandpa on the app, providing the voice.”
Šišókadúta and Dakhóta Iápi Okhódakičhiye recorded words spoken by seven first language 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 Manitoba. Šišókadúta and another Dakota language instructor at the University of Minnesota also recorded some words to fill in gaps when the audio files weren’t clear enough.
Much of the state of Minnesota is Dakota ancestral territory, but many were forced to relocate after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Today, Minnesota has four federally recognized Dakota communities — and only one first language Dakota speaker from those communities.
“This is a critical time for the language, which at one time was the language of the state,” Meya said. “In the pre-contact period, most people in the area were speaking Dakota, or if not Ojibwe. But it was a language that was used by thousands of people for tens of thousands of years.”
The dictionary app itself is just a tool for learning the language, but it’s part of a larger effort to revitalize the language and even create future generations of first language speakers. The nonprofit will continue to add words to the app and interview elders who might have new insights to share about the language. For Šišókadúta, the work is ongoing.
“The dictionary app isn’t going to speak the language for you, it’s up to you to speak it and use it and read it and write it,” he said. “But it’s a tool for helping you learn. I hope all of our people can take advantage of that. Every word you speak, you’re breathing life into the language.”
Šišókadúta has been heartened to see more and more Dakota students interested in learning the language. When he started learning, he said about 50% of his class were Dakota. The rest were non-native or non-Dakota people interested in the language. His classes today are 80-90% Dakota, or from nearby nations.
Ava Hartwell, who is Oglala Lakota, is one of Šišókadúta’s students. She was first interested in learning Lakota, but without a formal class available, she struggled to learn it on her own. Though she’s 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. She’s now in her second semester.
Hartwell said she uses the new Dakota app every day to broaden her vocabulary. At the grocery store, she’ll take her phone out to look up the names of food she’s buying, like green beans (omníča suthúŋ šni) or soap (haípažaža).
It’s much easier than using the outdated dictionaries that already exist. The last substantive dictionary was published by missionaries in 1852.
For Hartwell, access to learning Dakota has been transformational. Her father is Lakota, and she had some exposure to the culture through his family, but it wasn’t until she started learning Dakota that she really connected to her identity.
“Personally I’ve seen immense growth in my confidence,” she said. “Learning the Dakota language comes with learning the Dakota mindset and ways of our people. You learn to just appreciate everything for what it is.”
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