For the Dakota, now is a time for revitalization

UPPER SIOUX COMMUNITY -- Harry Running Walker's great-grandfather was among the chiefs who signed the 1851 treaty that ceded most of the Dakota land in Minnesota to the U.S. government for about 12 cents an acre.

Their history to present
Carolyn Schommer, left, makes a point as Harry Running Walker listens during a discussion held as part of the traveling exhibit "Why Treaties Matter'' at Prairie's Edge Casino Resort. Schommer and Running Walker grew up speaking Dakota as their first language. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

UPPER SIOUX COMMUNITY -- Harry Running Walker's great-grandfather was among the chiefs who signed the 1851 treaty that ceded most of the Dakota land in Minnesota to the U.S. government for about 12 cents an acre.

In 1862, his great-grandfather, Chief Mazomani, was fatally wounded while carrying a white flag during the Battle of Wood Lake.

These many years later, Harry Running Walker carries a far different torch.

Running Walker, 87, is among four remaining fluent Dakota speakers in the Upper Sioux Community. Running Walker and Carolyn Schommer help teach the language and pass on the oral traditions to young people in the community. First cousins, they grew up hearing the story of how their ancestor was mortally wounded.

Running Walker and Schommer told their stories while visiting with guests at Prairie's Edge Casino and Resort last week. They were marking the departure of a traveling exhibit that had been hosted there called "Why Treaties Matter.''


The exhibit is a joint project of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, the Minnesota Humanities Center, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the America Indian in Washington, D.C.

It tells about the treaties and the relationships they created between the U.S. government and the sovereign Dakota and Ojibwe nations in Minnesota. Tom Ross, a member of the Upper Sioux Community, was among those who helped develop the exhibit.

The native peoples ceded lands to the U.S. government in the treaties. They also reserved other lands and many rights on the ceded lands for themselves. It was not the U.S. government that "reserved'' lands for the native peoples.

The exhibit also tells of how the U.S. government violated its treaties in ways that often proved tragic to the Dakota and Ojibwe.

Schommer and Running Walker both grew up in the Upper Sioux Community, one of four federally recognized Dakota communities in Minnesota. Dakota was the first language spoken in their homes.

Schommer attended kindergarten in Granite Falls as one of five Dakota students who did not speak English when she arrived.

Today, she returns often to the same buildings to teach Dakota to children in the Yellow Medicine East elementary and high schools.

Running Walker attended school as a youth at the Pipestone Indian School. He said a teacher showed him the door when he answered with the Dakota words when shown images of a cat and dog.


Dakota was spoken at the school, but Running Walker said he and other native speakers were forbidden to speak Dakota to the younger students who were not native speakers.

It is much different today. His young relative, Naomi Pigeon, a 17-year-old senior at the Yellow Medicine East School, is among those who appreciate the opportunity to speak Dakota with him.

Pigeon said it can be difficult for young Dakota to learn the language due to the many distractions that compete for their attention and interest.

But she enjoys learning the language, and appreciates the culture that is hers as part of what she calls a tight-knit community.

It is critical to teach the language to young people if the Dakota culture is to remain strong, according to Schommer. "The language and culture are one and the same,'' she said.

The growing interest by young people to learn their language and keep the culture is encouraging to Kevin Jensvold, chairman of the Upper Sioux Community. He joined the conversation with the two elders, and was quick to point out that the effort to teach Dakota to young people is not about "preserving'' the language.

"You preserve a cucumber. We're not preserving the language. We're not preserving the culture. We're revitalizing it,'' said the chairman.

To learn about the exhibit, visit

What To Read Next