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Spreading the word: Project uses translated rap music as means for younger American Indians to learn native language

Agency Village, S.D. Tammy DeCoteau devotes much of her time thinking about how she can coax children into doing something that came naturally to their great-grandparents: speak in their native Dakota language. In recent years, she's been the dri...

Agency Village, S.D.

Tammy DeCoteau devotes much of her time thinking about how she can coax children into doing something that came naturally to their great-grandparents: speak in their native Dakota language.

In recent years, she's been the driving force behind a series of efforts to expose young people on the Lake Traverse Reservation to their ancestral language in appealing ways.

Those efforts have included recording popular children's songs and publishing illustrated phrase books and nursery rhymes in Dakota Sioux.

The latest project is a collaboration of young and old: recording a rap song with Dakota lyrics and widely distributing copies.


"We're just branching out in another genre," said DeCoteau, who is director of American Indian language programs for the Association of American Indian Affairs.

"We're trying to get the language where you wouldn't ordinarily see it - through music or games, anywhere we can get their attention," she said.

DeCoteau and others at Sisseton-Wahpeton College in Sisseton, S.D., who were involved in the project, believe "Wicozani Mitawa" or "My Life," a song about a young man's struggles, is the first rap song recorded in the Dakota language.

More than 250 compact discs containing the song, recorded in late August, have been distributed free of charge to young people on the reservation, with its tribal headquarters at Agency Village near Sisseton.

The popularity of rap music among young adults and children made it an obvious vehicleto kindle interest in Dakota, now spoken fluently by a dwindling number of the tribe's elders.

"The parents of these young children listen to rap," DeCoteau said. That common interest could be a bridge to help foster an interest in their native language.

The rap song was a collaborative effort that brought together young adults and grandparents, who translated English lyrics into Dakota.

The recording project was sparked by a conversation DeCoteau had with one of her nephews, Tristan Eastman, who writes and performs rap songs.


"She asked me if I could write a rap song for kids," Eastman said. "I asked her if she meant nursery school kids. She said no, people your age."

Eastman, who is 20, estimates that "97 percent" of kids on the reservation listen to rap or hip-hop music.

"A lot of kids want to live in the hip-hop culture and do what they see on TV," he said. "It's breaking us from who we are."

One of the song's messages, from the point of view of a young man who fights despair, is to embrace native pride and stand up for traditional culture.

"The farther we get from our languages, the more confused our young people get about who they are and their place in the world," said William Harjo Lone Fight, president of Sisseton-Wahpeton College.

"In our language is embedded the instruction on how we treat one another and how we survive," he added.

The rap song project brought together an improbable cast of collaborators. Rap music was like a foreign language to the elders who helped with the translation into Dakota.

"The elders didn't have much experience with rap," DeCoteau said. She had them listen to an English version, with a piano accompaniment and pulsing drum beat. "They figured rap wasn't all that bad."


Orsen and Edwina Bernard were the lead translators of Eastman's lyrics. To capture the spirit, Orsen crossed the generational divide.

"I had to think where this young fellow was coming from," he said. It wasn't all that difficult; all he had to do was remember his own struggles as a young man.

Bernard, in his 60s, recalled his sense of isolation while serving in the military in Germany, the only Dakota on his base.

Eastman hopes other American Indian youths will record popular songs in their native languages, a practice he believes will spread.

"I just can't wait to hear it," he said. "It's just going to be something."

The Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe, which has made restoring its language a top priority, also has a program that works with parents and children to foster speaking in Dakota at home.

The Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe first turned to language restoration as a way to help fight the rise in teenage delinquency.

The language program started by having fluent elders visit the community's day-care center every day to speak Dakota with the preschoolers.


Next came a phrase book, and ultimately the multimedia projects. The tribal college has turned a small classroom into a recording studio, with a computer and sound-mixing board.

Dakota words are sprouting everywhere. The aisles and display cases at the convenience store in Agency Village are festooned with Dakota words for common items, such as "mni" for water and "asanpi" for milk.

Large navy blue penants with Dakota words to reinforce important values hang from the airy main corridor of the school. One banner, for instance, read: "Wausinda - showing empathy for all living things."

In the classroom, elementary teachers are trying to help students take the next linguistic step by stringing words into phrases and sentences.

"We're trying to move beyond that," said Mindy Deutsch, lead teacher for grades kindergarten through second.

Dakota language instruction is part of the curriculum of both K-12 and the tribal college. The tribal council is considering making Dakota its official language, and has channeled about $100,000 of its casino revenues into language restoration in recent years, said Harjo Lone Fight.

"The sense of urgency has increased since the language-speaking population has decreased," he said. "Thirty years ago, there seemed to be an endless supply."

The last census found that 3 percent of the tribe's 11,000 members speak Dakota, DeCoteau said. Most fluent speakers are elderly.


According to Ethnologue, an online linguistic database, the 1990 census identified 15,355 Dakota speakers in the United States, most of them located in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Nebraska. Another 5,000 live in Canada, in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Language and culture are intertwined, said Olivia Eastman, Tristan Eastman's grandmother. She helped translate and edit the rap song's lyrics.

"Language is the most integral part of our culture because we learn how to live through our language," said Olivia Eastman, whose first language was Dakota. "The health of a culture is measured by its language."

She has worked with the family language program, where parents and children learn Dakota together. At first, participants seemed leery, with an attitude that suggested more a sense of obligation than desire.

But that quickly changed.

"By the second week they were speaking and singing songs in Dakota," Olivia Eastman said. "It's a language that we knew before we were born."

Her grandson, who recently moved to Morton, Minn., hopes his rap song will catch on.

"I would love to hear another person singing my song," he said. Learning the lyrics would be a language lesson, he added. "That there is restoration of our language."


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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