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Connecting with culture: Dakota Wicohan works to preserve language, way of life for Lower Sioux Community

Native American culture and language was nearly lost after generations of young people were sent to boarding schools. Organizations like Dakota Wicohan in Morton are working to preserve and pass the language and Native ways on for future generations.

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Lluvia Lavlanc Alfarro, 11, from left, Autumn Jones, 10, and Carissa Espinoza, 11, start their afternoon at Dakota Wicohan in Morton with a bowl of soup and a smudging ritual on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. The nonprofit is working to preserve the Dakota language, history and culture for future generations
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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MORTON — Decorating bright orange T-shirts was the order of the day for a dozen Native American girls one Tuesday in September.

Some of the girls from the Lower Sioux Community at Morton ironed pre-prepared designs on their shirts; others drew their own artwork using fabric paint at the Dakota Wicohan building in Morton. The shirts would be worn Sept. 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 turn Native children away from their ancestral 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 Dakota way of life, is a nonprofit working to preserve the Minnesota Dakota language, history and culture for future generations. It recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.

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“Because of what our ancestors endured, we lost a lot of our culture,” said Gianna Eastman, youth coordinator at Dakota Wicohan. “We want to be a small part of reviving it.”

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Minnesota Dakota language is written out on a white board at the head of the classroom at the Dakota Wicohan on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in Morton.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

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

Eastman, 27, said she was hired at Dakota Wicohan four years ago, right after college. For her, it seemed a natural fit.

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

“I remember when my grandma was getting this idea, and it was coming to life,” Eastman said.

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

Leith, who died in 2013, had been in a boarding school, Eastman said. Dakota had been her first language, but she could hardly remember it after her time in the school.

Youth-focused 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.

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Before the girls began designing their T-shirts, they started the meeting with smudging. One girl took a sprig of sage and lit it in a bowl. As the sage smoldered, she took it around the room so each person could wave the smoke toward them and around them.

The ritual is “a way to cleanse 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 reading 'Every Child Matters' during an after-school girls' gathering at Dakota Wicohan on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in Morton.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Carissa Espinoza, 11, said she’s attended programs for several years. “I like it,” she said. “We learn language and how to bead and how to sew.”

Mya Lamebull, 14, was deciding 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 have learned to make ribbon skirts and other regalia worn at powwows. There’s a boys’ drum group in which they plan to make their own drums. Archery is another activity offered through the nonprofit.

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Dakota Wicohan assistant Priscilla Gruendemann cuts out iron-on logos for children to create 'Every Child Matters' T-shirts on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in Morton.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Activities are often a combination of fun and cultural information.

Boys have a group meeting Monday, girls on Tuesday. Dakota language lessons are available for all on Wednesday, and youth art circle takes place Thursday.

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

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

There’s a strong connection between horses and Native American people, Eastman said. In the past, “they couldn’t have survived without horses; they were like family.”

The Dakota Wicohan youth programs are important to both leaders. They have parents and grandparents who were in the boarding schools. Gruendemann’s children have attended the programs, and so did Eastman when she was younger.

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

“For most of the youth and families, they don’t know a lot,” Gruendemann said.

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

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Children enter Dakota Wicohan after school on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in Morton.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

An important part of the Dakota Wicohan program is a Sacred Life Council meeting every other Monday. Those meetings focus on suicide prevention.

They talk about why suicide prevention is so important for Native 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, Sept. 20, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

In Minnesota, Native Americans are three times more likely to die by suicide than other racial groups, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The goal of the meetings 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 talks to students before starting an activity on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in Morton.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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The Tribune publishes Records as part of its obligation to inform readers about the business of public institutions and to serve as a keeper of the local historical record. All items are written by Tribune staff members based on information contained in public documents from the state court system and from law enforcement agencies. It is the Tribune’s policy that this column contain a complete record. Requests for items to be withheld will not be granted.