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

Oct. 29—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.

"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."

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.

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 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."

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.