Teaching Dakota Language Through Traditional Song, and Football

Last Updated by Michael Zimny on

The Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate  147th Annual Wacipi will be celebrated this coming fourth of July weekend. The historic festival is one of the longest-running annual cultural events within the 50 states. It takes a multi-generational determination to sustain that kind of longevity in the face of long odds, but the SWO has it. The traveler here finds communities that, while small, are as rich in culture as the lands they inhabit are in undulant fields of green. SDPB meets with a few of the many artists, teachers and artisans that make the Oyate a cultural powerhouse on the Plains in the weeks leading up to the Wacipi.

Mikey Peters is Director of Dakota Studies at Tiospa Zina Tribal School. He grew up on the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate since the age of one. His family had been relocated to Los Angeles, but moved back. He learned the art of traditional song from his grandparents, other relatives and elders, and at the tribal school. In addition to developing curriculum to teach students Dakota language, he coaches varsity football. He also practices the art of traditional Dakota song, is a grass dancer, and makes drums from wood and animal hide.

SDPB heard from him in his own words about the importance of Dakota language for youth, Dakota honor songs, different methods of teaching and inspirations.

On Learning New (Old) Songs

“To hear a new song from an elder is a treat for me — to hear a song that might have been sung when my grandpas were singers, living around here. So I really keep my ears open and try to do a proper thing, maybe give some tobacco, and I’ll have my little phone there and record that song, and I’ll go home and I’ll learn it. And I enjoy that experience of learning it, because you’ll learn stories about your own people and you hear old words in those songs that are being lost, and you can bring those words back.”

On Honor Songs

“My main focus in the songs I carry is for honoring reasons, to honor people and to help when people need to set up a drum and ask for an honor song. They’re meant to uplift someone who’s done something good. A lot of times in society today, we get so focused on the negative that we forget to acknowledge those that are doing positive things. And, in our culture, we’ve had these songs for probably thousands of years that are for that purpose. And that’s a good way for us to get stronger as a nation.”

On Using Dakota Language in Football

“We’re trying to find different places to utilize the language, so [kids] are not just learning it, and not being able to use it somewhere. So we’re trying to find other avenues we can go down for using the language, and football’s one of them, so we call all of our plays in Dakota language, and that’s really helping the kids find a purpose for it. I learned that from football teams in Hawaii that use Hawaiian language.

“Before the season starts I’ll tell them the story of the code talkers. That sticks in their minds cause I’ll tell them, how are these other teams going to catch you in four quarters when these other countries couldn’t catch it in ten years?”

On Hawaiians as Inspiration

“The Hawaiians are a pretty resilient people. They brought their language up from only 5 percent [first language native Hawaiian] speakers. I like to use them as role models, and think highly of them for that and think if they can do it we can do it, and use their proven methods here to better ourselves linguistically.”

On Language and Moving Forward

“We’ve been through a lot here. A lot of assimilation, a lot of being en-cultured into a foreign society that we weren’t used to. The Dakota people were colonized just over 100 years ago, and to be colonized is a traumatic experience for any people. It takes a long time to come out of a colonization, when you were so used to your own culture.

“So, we make it point to remind these kids that it’s no holds barred right now. There’s nothing holding us back from learning our songs, our dances, our stories, our culture. Matter of fact, Obama, the government… different people are all telling us how important it is that we start using these now to begin our identity. Those things were taken from us, but it’s our job to get them back, and there’s nothing holding us back.”

subscribe to sdpb email updates food blog link image learning blog link image living blog link news and information blog link science and technology blog link sports blog link image

Related content from SDPB Radio - Art

In The Moment ... Remembering The Cold War In South Dakota

In The Moment ... June 19, 2017 Show 117 Hour 2 We look back now at the Cold War, when notions of a nuclear attack...

In The Moment ... Warrior Culture And 200 Years Of Fort Pierre

In The Moment ... June 13, 2017 Show 113 Hour 2 The current issue of “South Dakota Magazine” highlights South Dakota'...

In The Moment ... Meet The Street Poet

In The Moment ... June 5, 2017 Show 107 Hour 2 Vernon Patterson writes poetry about personal growth, his experiences...

In The Moment ... Benjamin Jones And “Eisenhower’s Guerillas”

In The Moment ... June 1, 2017 Show 105 Hour 2 Ben Jones is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Dakota State University. He'...

Books

In The Moment ... Senator Mike Rounds On ACA Debate

In The Moment ... July 27, 2017 Show 143 Hour 2 Senator John Thune told the Washington Post that Republicans are...

In The Moment ... Adoption In South Dakota

In The Moment ... July 20, 2017 Show 138 Hour 1 Today we talk adoption in the state, going beyond the politics of...

In The Moment ... Summer Reading With Peggy Stout

In The Moment ... June 29, 2017 Show 125 Hour 1 It's time to pack your beach bag with books and get ready for a...

In The Moment ... Children’s Literature In The Age Of Trump

In The Moment ... May 19, 2017 Show 097 Hour 1 We could all use a laugh right now, especially children. So says...

Music

In The Moment ... Human Trafficking In South Dakota

In The Moment ... July 26, 2017 Show 142 Hour 1 The San Antonio human smuggling tragedy that left 10 dead is a stark...

In The Moment ... Yoga Culture In South Dakota

In The Moment ... July 24, 2017 Show 140 Hour 2 South Dakota yoga lovers Gather, Embrace, and Expand this weekend at...

Personalities: From Huron High to Broadway

Singer, actor, and teacher Joseph Mahowald graduated from Huron High School in 1977. He went on to study music and...

In The Moment ... Moment In Sound With Bo DePena

In The Moment ... July 21, 2017 Show 139 Hour 1 SDPB’s Steve Zwemke talks with musician Bo DePena. His latest EP is...

Theater

In The Moment ... Alex Meyer's Scenic Design

In The Moment ... May 10, 2017 Show 090 Hour 2 Alex Meyer. He's a junior art and theater major at Augustana College...

In The Moment ... Remembering Vietnam On Horseback

In The Moment ... May 9, 2017 Show 089 Hour 2 Colt Romberger’s father served in Vietnam, and it changed his life...

Dakota Midday: S.F. Washington's "Wizard Of Oz"

South Dakota high schools produce a variety of plays each year. This week the Washington High School drama...

Dakota Midday: Lisa McNulty On Female Artists

The Off-Broadway Women's Project Theater is the oldest and largest theater company that promotes women artists in...