Connection to Culture: Dakota Wicohan works to preserve the language and way of life of the Lower Sioux Community – West Central Tribune

MORTON – Decorating bright orange T-shirts was the order of the day for a dozen Native American girls on a Tuesday in September.

Some of the girls from the Lower Sioux community in Morton were ironing prepared patterns onto their shirts; others drew their own artwork with fabric paint at the Dakota Wicohan Building in Morton. The shirts would be worn on September 30, Orange Shirt Day.

The day honors both the children who died in boarding schools for Native American children and those who survived the schools. The day is observed in Canada and the United States.

Boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries attempted to divert native children from their native cultures and languages. Children were sometimes abused, and unmarked graves are still being discovered at the sites of the former schools.

Dakota Wicohan, translated as the Dakota Way of Life, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the Minnesota Dakota language, history, and culture for future generations. It recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.

“We lost a lot of our culture because of what our ancestors endured,” said Gianna Eastman, youth coordinator at Dakota Wicohan. “We want to play a small part in reviving them.”

The Minnesota Dakota language is written out on a white board at the head of the classroom at the Dakota Wicohan in Morton on Tuesday, September 20, 2022.

Macy Moore/West Central Tribune

The non-profit organization offers after-school programs for youth as well as programs for adults. It gives them language classes and teaches them traditional ways. The program has received grants, including ongoing grants from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.

Eastman, 27, said she was hired by Dakota Wicohan four years ago straight out of college. To her, it seemed like a natural fit.

Eastman’s grandmother, Yvonne Leith, was one of the founders of Dakota Wicohan.

“I remember when my grandma had this idea and it came to life,” Eastman said.

As a little girl, she helped her grandmother make items that she sold at powwows and community events to raise money for Dakota Wicohan. They made greeting cards, jewelry boxes, and wall signs with words in the Dakota language.

Leith, who died in 2013, was in boarding school, Eastman said. Dakota had been her first language, but she barely remembered it after her time at school.

Youth-oriented programs pass on knowledge

Eastman and youth program assistant Priscilla Gruendemann, 38, work with young people from the Lower Sioux community most days of the week.

Before the girls started designing their t-shirts, they started the meeting with smearing. A girl took a sprig of sage and lit it in a bowl. As the sage smouldered, she carried him across the room so everyone could wave the smoke on and around them.

The ritual is “a way of purifying ourselves,” Eastman said. “If you’ve had a rough day, it’s a way to refocus.”

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Dakota Wicohan Youth Coordinator Gianna Eastman, center, helps students create t-shirt designs that read “Every Child Matters” during an after-school girls’ get-together in Dakota Wicohan Tuesday, September 20, 2022 in Morton .

Macy Moore/West Central Tribune

Carissa Espinoza, 11, said she has been participating in programs for several years. “I like it,” she said. “We learn language and beadwork and sewing.”

Mya Lamebull, 14, pondered how to finish decorating her shirt and said she knew why it was important. “We wear orange for the lost children in boarding schools,” she said.

The girls learned to sew bow skirts and other regalia worn at powwows. There is a boys drum group where they plan to build their own drums. Archery is another activity offered by the non-profit organization.

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Priscilla Gruendemann, assistant to Dakota Wicohan, cuts iron-on logos for children to create t-shirts that say “Every Child Matters” in Morton on Tuesday, September 20, 2022 in Morton.

Macy Moore/West Central Tribune

Activities are often a combination of fun and cultural information.

Boys have a group meeting on Monday, girls on Tuesday. Dakota language classes are available to all on Wednesdays and the youth arts circle is on Thursdays.

After the arts circle, they play lacrosse, which has its roots in Native American culture. The youth play with modern sticks and then switch to traditional handmade sticks.

During the summer, the youngsters go horseback riding at a ranch near Morton owned by Eastman’s family.

There’s a strong connection between horses and Native Americans, Eastman said. In the past, “they could not have survived without horses; They were like family.”

Dakota Wicohan’s youth programs are important to both leaders. You have parents and grandparents who went to boarding schools. Grünemann’s children have attended the programs, as has Eastman when she was younger.

The women said they enjoy their work and want to help young people find a sense of identity by sharing information about their culture.

“Most young people and families don’t know much,” said Gruendemann.

“They’re very interested,” Eastman added. “They want to learn about aboriginal culture.”

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Children enter Dakota Wicohan after school on Tuesday, September 20, 2022 in Morton.

Macy Moore/West Central Tribune

An important part of Dakota Wicohan’s program is the Sacred Life Council, which meets every other Monday. These meetings focus on suicide prevention.

They talk about why suicide prevention is so important for indigenous communities.

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Liana McKee, 11, right, uses a fabric marker to design her Every Child Matters t-shirt at Dakota Wicohan in Morton on Tuesday, September 20, 2022.

Macy Moore/West Central Tribune

According to the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services, Minnesota Indians are three times more likely to die by suicide than other racial groups.

The goal of the gatherings is to help young people build a sense of identity and pride in their culture and a connection to their community, Eastman said.

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Dakota Wicohan Youth Coordinator Gianna Eastman speaks to students before beginning an activity Tuesday, September 20, 2022 in Morton.

Macy Moore/West Central Tribune


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