Dakota First-Language Speaker and Educator
By Diane Wilson
- Teaching at the University of Minnesota
- Dakota Language & Culture
- A Positive Way of Teaching
As one of the few remaining Dakota first-language speakers in Minnesota, Carolynn (Carrie) Schommer is a regional treasure, a well-known name in language revitalization programs. Known affectionately as Kunsi or Grandmother Carrie to her many students, she has little interest in retiring from a lifetime of teaching Dakota language and culture. After more than 20 years of teaching at the University of Minnesota, Carrie has spent the past 10 years at home in her Wahpetonwan community teaching children and families in Granite Falls, a small town in southwestern Minnesota.
Even an interview with Carrie becomes a social event. Many people are interested in her life, her work as an educator, or seek her direction as an elder whose life work has been invested in helping new generations of Dakota recover their language and culture. When we met at the Prairie’s Edge Casino on September 14, 2013, to hear Carrie’s story, our group included Joe Rice, the Executive Director for Na-way-ee Center School; Graham Hartley, Migizi Communications; and local educators Roxanne Gould, Jim Rock, and Beth Brown.
Carrie’s gift is not just teaching Dakota language and culture; she is also a strong communicator whose prolific stories are told with humor and a sense of gracious humility. After Joe Rice explained the Conversation with Elders interview project, Carrie said, “I appreciate everything that you all do and that others are doing to keep the cultures of all our Native people for the younger generation to find themselves.”
Carrie learned the Dakota language from her own family, an opportunity that few children have today. Growing up in Granite Falls, Carrie and her 10 siblings were raised by parents who were both Dakota first-language speakers. Her grandfather was Inyangmani Hoksida, Running Walker Boy, the son of Chief Running Walker, Inyangmani.
When Carrie started kindergarten in Granite Falls in 1935, she could not speak a single word of wasichu, her term for white language and culture. Her father, who was bilingual, encouraged her to learn what they taught her at school but not to speak English at home. He said, when you’re in school you learn what they’re teaching you there but you don’t have to bring it home. When you’re home, you stick to your own ways. Surprisingly, it was her mother, whom Carrie described as “a very traditional Dakota,” who said, no, they have to bring it home in order for them to retain that language. She understood they would need to learn the English language in order to survive.
Carrie credits the patience and compassion of her teachers for helping her learn as a young student. When she grew older, she chose to attend the Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota in hopes of learning more about other tribes and their culture. To her disappointment, the school did not provide much cultural or language based education. Carrie remembers a drum group that was never asked to sing at any assemblies so they gathered out on the campus to share songs that reminded them of home. “They sang to each other to take that ache away, the pain of having to be away from home,” Carrie said.
Shortly after the University of Minnesota established the country’s first Indian Studies department in 1969, Carrie was invited to become one of the Dakota language teachers. After earning accreditation, she taught Dakota language and culture, helped develop curriculum, and supported the department in its efforts to bring cultural programs to the community.
“One thing we always did, and you need to always do that, at the beginning of each quarter we would always have a feast and a pipe ceremony,” Carrie said. “You have to do that to bring that part of the culture in to strengthen the students and ourselves. In the middle of the school year we’d always have a wacipi (powwow/dance) and invite the community in. But all during the school year, we always made ourselves available to the communities out there so they would understand and know what we were doing.” They also invited elders to help develop the curriculum.
It’s important, Carrie said, to share the culture with the community rather than simply teaching. “You can teach at the University of Minnesota, just teach, teach, teach. But if you’re not in communication with your own people, and that’s where you’re at, then it doesn’t mean anything. You’re being selfish. You’re just there to do what you got to do.”
There were other challenges that came with working within a large bureaucratic institution. Sometimes the “powers that be” did not fully understand the cultural reasons behind program decisions. Carrie and the elders in her department had to stand their ground and insist on protecting the culture. “If we did it that way then just go ahead and teach it like any other language or culture,” Carrie said.
After the resignation of the two Dakota elders whom Carrie had worked with for many years, she experienced a troubling epiphany one day while walking across campus on the first day of class. All of a sudden she realized that with the two Dakota elders gone, she didn’t want to be there any more. She stopped in the middle of campus, surrounded by a crowd of students passing by, as a heavy loneliness swept over her. In that moment, she felt like the only Dakota, the only Native person, on that campus. She asked herself, what am I doing here? After a lot of prayer and discussion with her family, she decided to retire at the end of the year and go back home to the Upper Sioux community.
Today, after a long career of teaching Dakota language and culture, Carrie is back teaching Dakota in the same school in Granite Falls where she first learned to speak English. Many Dakota families have not learned their language or culture growing up, a consequence of boarding schools and government assimilation policies. As a result, the Dakota language is in crisis, with fewer than 8 first language speakers remaining in Minnesota, most of whom are over 60.
Some of the children who come to Carrie’s class lack a basic understanding of their Dakota identity, such as their connection to the Oceti Sakowin or Seven Council Fires (bands) that make up the Dakota Nation.
“In my class, the one that I’m teaching now, some of them don’t know what Seven Council Fires their family is from,” Carrie said. “Yet they’re here in the community and that’s very important. I share that with them and I say, you go home and show this to your parents. Find out which of the Seven Council Fires you’re from. Those are important things to know…I always say, you need to first start from your home base, your family.”
Although her students are just beginning to learn the Dakota language, Carrie does not teach Dakota as a second language. She tells her students, instead, that Dakota is their first language.
“The reason why I want to do things in that way is because I want them to feel within them who they are,” Carrie explained. “That is who they are. Not the wasichu that they’ve been doing all these years. Their inner self is what’s very important.” Without that inner strength, without that understanding of who they are, our young people are getting lost. “It’s because they’re not having the teachings that were there for us. You have to have a lot of compassion because they need that. I want them to know themselves and who they are and always be proud of yourself.”
What this means for teachers of Native students, Carrie explained, is they need to understand who their Native students really are, that they’re equal to everyone in the classroom, including the teacher. “The students can be the teachers to the teachers if they would listen to them.”
For example, while Carrie is proficient on computers, she admits that she has not kept up with some of the new technology, such as iPads. But because this technology is a way of life for her young students, they’ve created a notebook for new Dakota words that they are adding to the language with Carrie’s help. When they needed a word for “cell phone,” Carrie asked them to explain to her what it does, what it means, and its purpose. Then they all worked together to come up with a word for it in Dakota that was added to their notebook. Carrie said, “I think it could be useful because all the children speak that same language, if you want to call it language. It’s interesting because that is theirs and they’re teaching me that.”
Over her many years of teaching, Carrie has observed that children learn best if they are taught in a positive, patient manner, the same way she was taught as a child. Some children may require a lesson to be explained over and over but if “you do it in a good way, they’re going to understand. You don’t point fingers and say, you need to or you have to. Those negative things, they are never going to learn through that…Always come up with a positive thing for the kids and they’ll do great.” Teaching in a comfortable setting, sharing food along with practical life skills is a positive way to approach Native youth. Or as Carrie added with a smile, “No one is going to listen to you when you’re shaking a finger at them. I just go over there and break it off.”
Carrie’s positive approach carries through to her belief that despite the challenges facing efforts to revitalize Native languages, there is hope. “People used to say the languages are lost, they’re gone,” Carrie said. “They were never gone. It’s just that they weren’t being used. That needed to be in order for it to survive.”
One of the most hopeful changes for the future of the Dakota language may just be the hundreds of students who have taken Carrie’s classes at the U of M, and the hundreds more she has watched graduate from her junior high school class in Granite Falls. She admits it’s hard to watch them go. “They all call me Kunsi now, grandma. A lot of them are doing well. The heartbreaking part is that a lot of them are not. They get caught up in different things and you just hope for the best for them.”
Ultimately, Carrie said, she hopes that knowing who they are will help make them stronger when they come up against challenges in their lives. It isn’t their fault, she added, it just wasn’t part of their lives. For many families, the need to survive drove them to adapt to a new language and culture. Many other children were sent to boarding schools or brought up in foster care. Knowing this history means that Carrie’s teaching does not end with her students’ time in the classroom. Whether it’s helping a young man from Chicago find his birth mother, or encouraging young mothers to speak Dakota to their children, for Carrie this work comes from her heart.
When asked if she had any final thoughts to add for educators who might browse the PIE website, Carrie said, “When it comes to educating, you’re educating more than just your own culture. There’s a lot of other cultures out there that view those things. The one thing that you need to do is to be very careful of how you put that out there. There’s nothing negative about Native culture. Everything is positive. There isn’t anything I would suggest except that. It needs to be done with a lot of respect. We don’t disrespect other cultures just so we can be heard.
“When it comes to spirituality you want to be very careful on that one. If you’re going to share that make sure that you consult the right people. The spirituality is what is within you but if you put something out there from your own thoughts, you’re going to get all the criticism from your Dakota people.”
But, perhaps, the most important thought that Carrie would like to share is her belief that the language is still alive. “For me, it does my spirit a lot of good to know that it’s out there and you’re working with it,” Carrie said. “I don’t want to hear where people say, oh, the language is dead. When you say ‘the language,’ you’re talking about the culture and who we are. We can’t say that. Whenever you feel like you’re kind of doubtful about something…you get a little zing for thinking that way.”
As we prepared to close so that Carrie could watch the Vikings game, it was Roxanne who summed up the feelings of everyone in the room. “We appreciate you on so many different levels. You’ve been teaching for over 40 years. You must have taught hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands, of students. The impact that your teaching has had is enormous. When I first came to Minnesota I kept hearing about Kunsi Carrie because she has touched so many of our young people’s lives, and older people too.”
At Prairie’s Edge Casino with Joe Rice, Graham Hartley, Roxanne Gould, Jim Rock, Beth Brown, and Diane Wilson, September 14, 2013
[Note: lacking the proper Dakota font, any mistakes in spelling Dakota words are the responsibility of the writer.]
Joe: I want to tell you about the project we’re doing. A few years ago we put together a website because we felt there were lots of educators out there who didn’t know anything about how to work with Indian kids. We put together a website as a kind of database where you could find books or curriculum or writings. We also thought it would be really good to include the actual words of elders who worked in the field of education for a long time. We wanted to get their thoughts on the history, and their time in education and the insights they’ve gained through that. It’s really important to actually hear people’s words, what people have to say, as opposed to reading third hand about something. We’ve done a few interviews, about 7 or 8. We’ve been trying for two years to get together with you. We’re really honored to talk with you.
Carrie: Thank you so much. I appreciate everything that you all do and that others are doing to keep the cultures of all our Native people for the younger generation to find themselves, if you will. Like in my class, the ones that I’m teaching now, some of them don’t know what Seven Council Fires their family is from. Yet they’re here in the community and that’s very important. I share that with them and I say, you go home and show this to your parents, find out which of the Seven Council Fires you’re from and the subdivisions of that. Those are important things to know, I said. For a while there, for me, I felt as if our Native languages, our culture, even thought we had our wacipi, you know, and different meetings and things but somewhere along the way I was feeling like we were losing it. Even though we work at it there’s just not enough out there for people that have little knowledge. It’s not their fault, it just wasn’t being shared with them. A lot of the people that I come in contact with, they’re always so eager. They are good listeners and I always say, you need to first start from your home base, your family. Go from there and find out. If there’s other questions you have, there’s always people that are willing to help and educational places where you don’t have to pay any tuition or anything.
So I appreciate all that you do. Even if I’m not there for you all the time. I’m always here anyway. I try to get to all the conferences that I can. I like to see where they’re going with it and it’s always been good. I’ve been to so many in the last how many years and I wonder what’s happening here, we’re not having too many of those conferences. The two that we’ve been to in the last couple of years at Mystic, there is more than just Dakota and Lakota. There’s other tribes that get involved in that so we all get to meet together and learn from each other. What we’re learning from each other has always been there. To start sharing all of that we’re helping the other Dakota and the other tribes in keeping their Native thoughts. That’s the main thing, there is that spirit within all of us that needs a little bit of awakening. I always say that it’s not anybody’s fault, it’s not there for them, or it’s there but it’s not brought out for them to understand.
Like I say, some of my students they look at me when I ask them what Seven Council Fires they’re from. I say, go home and ask your family. Now part of the introduction is for the children, what Council Fire their parents came from. A lot of young people now, though, I don’t what it is, I think it’s just a movement of having to go where survival is for your family. They lose some of that in that process of moving from one place to another. Whenever and wherever you can gather together and share all of that with the different communities is very, very important. For me, my thought is for my community. What I’d like to see here. I don’t know how you start a fire underneath people. You have to have that within you that you want your culture and your whole self to be for the younger generations to revitalize languages and spirituality, and how important it is to be who you are. I think that gives them a better outlook on their future. I grieve for my younger generation because there’s so many things that they’re up against. We’ve lost so many of them to all those things, that’s heartbreaking.
My daughter Dawn works really hard at keeping the culture. She makes sure that the children are involved in all the national youth conferences. She’s taken a lot of our community children to the NAI conferences. She’s taken them to Hawaii, what a beautiful trip. That’s a big responsibility.
They love their culture. We have language on Tuesday nights for family. Anyone that wants to come, it’s not singled out. There’s no reading, it’s an oral teaching of the language. They do so well. Like I say, the children that she teaches, they’re able to get out here in the other culture community. They’re singing and dancing, and able to share the language. They’re all young. We have a little drum group. Two of them are 7th graders now, they have to be at least 12 or 13 years old. They do have their own little drum. They sing in wasichu and Dakota. They translate one song into wasichu so the non-speakers can understand. That’s what they did the other day.
We’re pretty proud of what we’re accomplishing in a small community. We have maybe 30 to 40 children coming to language classes. The thing that I would like to see is the parents or uncles and aunties and sisters and brothers, if they would come and learn from each other too. You don’t do something if you think you have to. The difference is if you enjoy doing it, you’re going to come and learn. It’s a lot easier to learn that way. It’s better to learn that way than if somebody says you need to be. That never works, or it never worked for me anyway.
Diane: We were talking on the drive down about how you get kids engaged in learning. That was a big topic for us.
Carrie: For us and for me, I have some non-Dakotas in my class and they are so eager to learn. That one little wasichu boy, when he goes like this (makes a face), he’s studying. Then I talk to him and finally bring it out of him. I tell him, don’t think about it so hard. Just go with it, listen to each other, that’s how you’re going to learn. They’re trying to learn but when they start frowning then they’re trying too hard.
When I was first learning, we started school in kindergarten without a word of wasichu. After hardly even seeing any wasichu children, we walk into this little room, all blond-haired and blue eyes. In those days, they really were blond and red hair and blue eyes. Here’s the mixture of cultures too, so you can see a little bit of different color. Not then. I think the teachers were very compassionate. I never remember any one of them being impatient with us. If they were, we didn’t notice it. We did pick up on how they were teaching us. My father, who was bilingual, he just always encouraged us. When you’re in school you do learn what they’re teaching you there but you don’t have to bring it home. When you’re home, you stick to your own ways. My mother, who was a very traditional Dakota, she could hardly speak wasichu, just a few words here and there. She was the one, she surprised my dad, she said, no, they have to learn. They have to bring it home in order for them to retain that language over there now for their survival. This is what my mother said. Dad would use wasichu for different things so we learned from home and school.
I only remember one teacher, she was math only they didn’t call it math. They called it arithmetic. What is that, same thing. Anyway, she was so special in having you learn those things. It was easy to learn once you understood it. We all got good grades. She was patient, she was such a wonderful teacher. I guess we were lucky that we did get good teachers. If there was anything else said to us, we didn’t understand it anyways so we didn’t take offense to anything. Like I say, we didn’t understand if the other children were saying anything about us anyways. It’s not being ignorant, it’s just that you don’t understand. We learned really well. I have to say, I commend the teachers and my mom and dad.
Diane: They encouraged you to stay in school and learn both languages…
Carrie: Oh yes. They knew that if we were going to survive into our generation, we had to. We had to know the other culture language and their culture too. We didn’t get too involved in other activities because we went home when the bus came to pick us up. The only other way of learning another culture was when we had missionaries that came. They came every summer and they would bring so many different things that we weren’t used to. Like sometimes it was ice cream. They had to go to town to get it but it was a treat. Some of the other foods that they brought were foreign to us. The teachings, too, they taught us in such a way where they had the patience and explained everything.
I don’t know if patience is patience in this day and age. They really push you. I don’t like that when I hear that. When you say to young people, if you can’t, if you don’t, that always just puts you back. They’re putting it to you, if you can or if you can’t. Just say, it will come to you if you study. It’s all in the way people teach. The way I was brought up everything was always explained to you.
Diane: This was public school here in Granite Falls?
Carrie: The school in town here was built in 1930. That was the year I was born. Five years later, I was going to school there without knowing any English. Now I always tell my students, don’t feel so bad, I was here when I was 5 years old when this school was built. They think, oh my gosh, she’s as old as this building! I hope not, that building shows its age. I always tell them that. Now I say, here I am, I was learning wasichu, the culture, everything, after the school was built. Now I’m back here, this time teaching my language to some of the wasichu students. I’m a teacher so it’s just the other way around. What is it that they always say in wasichu about that.
Joe: What goes around, comes around?
Carrie: I guess that’s it.
Diane: So both your parents were fluent speakers. Did they go through boarding school?
Carrie: My mother went to those old country schools right here. My mother married when she was 16 years old. When she was growing up, she went to the country school house. Her English was very limited. When she went to that country school I don’t think she learned too much. There was enough for her to get through her school but she never went into 7th or 8th grade or anything like that. She was just who she was. She was very, very wise. She knew that life was going to be changing for us. Our father was the one that would give the advice and put us in the right direction. But that time she was the one to say we have to use the language in order for the children to learn it and be out in that world. That was true. Like I say, we must have had really good teachers because we all learned to speak wasichu.
The English language is always changing. It’s so complicated sometimes. It means the same thing so why are you putting a word in there for what it was before? I don’t see the point in that. If you want people to understand you then just keep it the way it is.
If you want to develop more vocabulary, we’re doing that too. That may be something you’d be interested in too is the different things like this here [points to cell phone]. We have words now for cell phone and tv, all these other little things. We have a notebook with all these things and the students themselves have worked on it and translated to what it means in wasichu. To put it into Dakota because it’s a new word, you have to tell me what it does, what it means, and what’s the purpose of it. And that is something that the students are doing. That’s a part of their language now. They come up with it and they ask me, Kunsi, how would you say this? Tell me what it does and what it means and what it means to you and then we can go from there. And they tell me. The students are really patient. They explain to me what that could mean. Then we all work at it and we come up with a word for it in Dakota. That’s what the older students are doing. It needs to be put into a nice textbook form, even if they just use it at our school. I think it could be useful because all the children all speak that same language, if you want to call it language. It’s interesting because that is theirs and they’re teaching me that.
Diane: Is that a lot of what you’re doing, teaching language to kids and adults who are learning it as a second language? Do you also have to teach a way of thinking about it?
Carrie: I don’t like to think about Dakota as being a second language at all. I tell them that Dakota is their first language.
Diane: So they’re learning their first language.
Carrie: The reason why I want to do things in that way is because I want them to feel within them who they are. That is who they are. It’s not this wasichu that they’ve been doing all these years, they’re born with it almost. Their inner self is what’s very important. The spirit within, as they say. I want them to feel that so much. I teach this to my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren and their parents. You have to feel that within yourself to make you feel who you are, to make you who you are. I think the path that some of our young students are taking, if we can reach all of them and tell them there is that within them that will make them stronger when they come up against some of the things that they encounter. That’s the way I feel and that’s the way I teach my students. Who they are and to know that they are the only ones who can feel that the spirit within them is strong.
Joe: It sounds like you’re saying you don’t want them to get lost.
Carrie: That’s it. There’s so many of them that are. I feel very deeply within my heart for the young people that we’ve already lost. It’s because they’re not having the teachings that were there for us. It’s not a seven day, six day thing, on Sunday you go and polish up your wings. The next day, Monday comes and it’s just another day. I don’t like that teaching. That isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. I think that’s what’s missing in our society. You have to have that compassion for the young people of our people. You have to have a lot of compassion because they need that, a lot of them need that. I want them to know themselves and who they are and always be proud of yourself.
Diane: That seems to be a way that teachers can make a big difference. What would you recommend to teachers?
Carrie: I don’t have that much interaction with the teachers at the school here. I make it a point not to do that. It’s not that I disagree with the teachers on what they’re doing. They’re teaching what our children need to learn. When I do get a chance to discuss anything with them, I always remind them that we are not like any other cultures that are here. We are different. If they say, that’s because you’re Indians. When they use the word, “Indian” to me, I feel insulted. That isn’t who we are. I want the teachers to understand the student in that way that they are who they are but they’re equal to everyone in that classroom and even to the teacher too. You have to appreciate teachers but that can turn around and the students can be the teachers to the teachers if they would listen to them. That communication needs to be there too.
Children learn the easiest way if they’re hearing it in a good way, they can grasp it. Some children have a hard time. If you do it in a good way, they’re going to understand. You have to repeat and go over and over it but you don’t point fingers and say, you need to or you have to. Those negative things, they are never going to learn through that. They might listen to it but what they’re saying to me is, am I going to learn it. They keep telling me, I need to. The need is there, yes, but you don’t have to keep reminding them of it. You’re doing well, you’re learning what you need to learn. Always come up with a positive thing for the kids and they’ll always do great. If you tell them, you need to do better, then they think, I did my best but I guess it wasn’t good enough.
Teachers are who they are. They’re educators. I respect them because they went through all those years to be who they are to teach our young people. But if you don’t understand the people as who they are, then all the licenses you have and the accreditation, too, you can have all of that but if you don’t have that within you…That’s just like a parent too. It’s getting back to being a human person, or who we are when the Creator created all of us. I think he had a nice plan in place but I don’t know who turned it upside down. But that’s what you teach, what you learn from the time you were just a child. They say babies learn just being around people. You know that sometimes babies will get a little crabby and it’s because they’re sensing something. That’s why they act like that. There’s where it’s all at, in the spirit of the person. We have to respect that. And respect the people who are helping you to learn. They have to respect you too so that you will learn well.
Diane: When did you start teaching at the University of Minnesota?
Carrie: Indian Studies was just being started there. That was in 1969, American Indian Studies, I started there when Roger Buffalohead was the Director. I would like to know how he’s doing. I’d like to see him in person, I still need that connection.
Joe: One common theme that people can lose track of is when we say, Mitakuye Oyasin, everything is related to everything. I think sometimes that’s the problem that people forget that it’s all together. They see it as disconnected parts here and there.
Carrie: That’s so true. I’m not going to share how I feel about that. When you say, Mitakuye Oyasin, you say that because they are, that feeling needs to be there. But if you’re just quoting that from someone else and you’re just using that because everyone else is using it, it doesn’t reach out there spiritually. They’re just using it because everyone else is. Mitakuye oyasin cante-waste nape ciyuzapi . If they would just use that, I greet you with a handshake from my heart. But they always just say, Mitakuye Oyasin, all my relatives. That’s true, we all are, but if you just go right into what you’re going to say in wasichu then the cultures are bouncing against each other.
Years ago at the Target store in St. Paul on University Avenue, I was shopping there and all of a sudden I heard this woman’s voice. She was saying, Hepan, Hepan, Toki dada he? Tokiya yaun he? I stopped right there and thought, someone is speaking Dakota! So I just stopped my shopping and went towards that voice because she kept calling for her boy. I finally found her. She was talking to her little Hepan in Dakota, telling him, you stay by me, Mikiyeda un togehpe nic’ iye kte ye you’re going to lose yourself. Mazopiya nina tanka ye That little boy was hearing and listening. Then I introduced myself to her. I said, you don’t know what that did for me to hear Dakota in this huge store. I hear it at home but to hear it out there like that was like the Creator just going, he’s out there. It really made me feel so special and I told her that. He understands and he’s listening to you. Just keep that up with him. Whoever that was, we didn’t exchange names or anything. We talked for a little bit. When you hear the language somewhere you’re going to find out where it’s coming from because you want to speak to that person. That’s how important the language and culture and who we are, that’s still within us. That’s what I want to see in our young people.
Even though I raised my children in the cities, they were brought up…their grandparents stayed with us in the wintertime. I didn’t want to see them out in the country during the winter. I had a hard time getting my mother out of her house in October. She wanted to stay until November at home. I’d keep them through the winter months. Latter part of March would come around, or April, and she would say…I think we should be getting home now. When I say that in Dakota, that really tugs at my heart. I can always hear my mother saying that, it’s what she wanted. We’d take them home and get them set up in their house for the spring, summer, and fall. They always stayed with us in the wintertime.
Diane: Were they gardeners?
Carrie: Oh yes. My father was excellent, just everything. I tell my students what we used to eat when we were kids. They have seafood night here (at the casino). We had frog legs. My dad was an excellent cook of all those things. In that time, I swear the frogs were about this big. They’re not these little tiny things that you see now. I don’t know where those frog legs come from when they have seafood night. Somebody must have a frog farm.
Diane: Can you talk about your time at the University of Minnesota teaching Dakota language?
Carrie: When we started it was a lot of doing our own lesson planning. Each day we made lesson plans for each day of the week. We’d go back again and add on to it. The first Dakota language book that came out of the U that was how our days started. We went to Hamline so we have a lot of connection with them. They helped us a lot. We did create our own curriculum. For us it wasn’t a written language. We didn’t use the dictionaries. We did our own way of writing. But Tim Dunnigan, our linguist, he would go over it and say, if this is the pronunciation we wanted maybe we should write it this way. Like our guttural sounds, how do you write that? It’s an oral language. It worked well enough where we graduated a lot of students from both Ojibwe and Dakota. It was a hard working department, there was a lot of students. I know the student count is way down from what it used to be.
We were all on one floor. We worked together, Ojibwe was Ojibwe, Dakota was Dakota. We exchanged when we had our department meetings, we exchanged how they were teaching, how we were teaching. We learned from each other. We worked really well together. There was a lot of other cultures coming in with their music, their songs, their stories, their dances. We used to go right out into the community in Minneapolis and St. Paul and work with families. We invited them in too.
One thing we always did—and you need always to do that—at the beginning of each quarter we would always have a feast and a pipe ceremony. Just to keep the students strong. We’d have Amos Owen from Prairie Island come in and now his son does it. You have to do that to bring that part of the culture in to strengthen the students and ourselves. We had to get certified through the state to be teaching. We were like other traditional teachers that came under the “eminence,” and I’m still under that. We were able to teach and do our cultural things without anyone saying we were doing the wrong thing.
We had our pipe ceremonies when Amos would come in, before each new quarter began. In the middle of the school year we’d always have a wacipi and invite the community in. But all during the school year, we always made ourselves available to the communities out there so they would understand and know what we were doing. We asked them to come in. There was a lot of elders in those days and they were even my elders that would come in and help us with curriculum.
Sometimes working for the University of Minnesota, the powers that be, they would put education up there and not as a person. They would use the power of being more educated. But who was more educated in what we were doing? I could never voice myself that way because the ladies that I worked with were older than I was. I respected that. I would tell them what I was thinking and what should be said when we met with the deans. I would share in that but they were the ones that would do all the talking. They would ask me and I would have to tell them that I was in agreement with them because I met with them. The thing is, I said, they’re my elders. I wouldn’t think about disagreeing with them. And why would I, there’s nothing to be in disagreement about. I said, it’s out there, you look at it and you know what we have there. If you want to learn more about it, come into the classroom. Instead of having these roundtable meetings.
When we were at the U we had a lot of people come in from different areas in higher education to see how we were doing in our teaching. We would go to all the conferences that were available to see what everyone else was doing. I know the U was the first one that had Indian Studies nationally. We had a wonderful curriculum, everyone was involved in that. The professors that came in with their expertise in dance, music, or whatever, we would take it out into the community and they would teach the community. I can’t remember where this one dancer was from but he taught traditional dancing. It was a swan dance, it was so beautiful. The students learned how to do that and then they took that out into the community.
It was a beautiful time because people in the community knew that the culture was there. It was always shared with them by going out there and being with them. That’s where it had to be. You can teach at the University of Minnesota, just teach, teach, teach. But if you’re not in communication with your own people, and that’s where you’re at, then it doesn’t mean anything. You’re being selfish. You’re just there to do what you got to do. It was never that way. We always shared. We had a lot of graduates.
One night at the casino I heard my Dakota name, Wahpetonwin. I stopped, who knows my Dakota name? And I thought, oh, maybe it’s just something I heard. Then I heard it again. So I turned around and looked and a young man was standing there. You don’t remember me….well, he’s a man now. He knew me and then he told me who he was. He was an attorney, on his way back from representing someone in Minneapolis and stopped at our casino. But he used the language. You don’t know how beautiful it is to hear the language. We use it in the family but when you hear it outside of the home…
People used to say, the languages are lost, they’re gone. They were never gone, I said, it’s just that they weren’t being used. You didn’t use the language. That needed to be in order for it to survive. The spirituality of our Dakota people, it’s not anything that’s been written down, it’s all within you. Of course, we had a thing when the missionaries came in and they had everything written down in wasichu. Way back then there were Dakota men who translated the Bible into Dakota. I have a Dakota Bible. I know how to read the wasichu Bible but if you ever read the Dakota, what it does for you. There’s so much more meaning. It’s just me because I know the language I understand it better. When I read or hear anything like that in Dakota it means so much more. Then I think to myself, who were these men that could translate from one language into our own with so much feeling. They understood what was being said and they would translate the full meaning of what it was. That comes from within. That’s their spirituality and you understand it when it comes out written in Dakota. It really does something for you to be able to do that.
That Bible belonged to my grandfather. I got it from my mother. It’s pretty old but I don’t dare send it anywhere. I don’t want them to touch the pages at all. The cover itself is falling apart. One elder, he’s the Caske, the first-born boy in the family, he’s the eldest one in our community. It’s my nephew, I have an older nephew. Anyway, he would say, Tuwin, henewa . He wanted to say something like, it made him a little upset. But he didn’t know how to put it in wasichu. [ Tuwin, hehe henina ma ticky miyedo.] He said, it made me “ticky.” I said, Caske, henina my ticky miye ]. He meant, I was ticked. He was trying to tell me exactly how he felt about that so he used the wasichu word, “ticky.” That way he used it well.
Roxanne: We’re starting a Dakota immersion school in the cities. What would you like to see us do at this school?
Carrie: It’s all up to you. I can have my input into how you do things but I like to watch how people do things with the Native language. I do voice my opinions when I see something that is not what you really need in there or you could change it to make it more appropriate if that’s the word for: in the Dakota culture. If I were to sit down with you and give you direction on what I would like to see, it’s not going to fit into what should be, what could be. I want to hear your thoughts because your thoughts are there already. You wouldn’t be doing this if you didn’t have that thought in place already. What you would need is some help in a lot of things while you’re doing this. But it’s not what I would like to see. I would like to see what it is that you’re going to be doing and go from there. If you were to start with what I’d like to see, oh ho…I would need to get an extension on my life.
Roxanne: Your opinions are important…
Carrie: I can do that, I can be a lot of help to you. I don’t want to say this is the way it should be. I don’t like giving those kind of directions. Because what you’re doing is a step in the right direction and you just have to follow that. I can be there for you, I can talk with you and give you direction. I know what you’re doing. I’m not very good at planning. What I do here in the community is exactly the way I want to do it, the way I see it’s going to work. But it’s nothing etched in stone. It just happened to be. I know with what you’re trying to do everything has to be in place for the powers that be that will be looking at what you’re trying to do and trying to change it. If you think that change doesn’t need to be there, you can argue that point and let them know it does have to be in there because it is a part of the culture. That’s what we had to do at the University. They wanted to change things and we had to stand our ground. It just wasn’t us. If we did it that way then just go ahead and teach it like any other language or culture. And there isn’t any other way to teach but what you have in place for yourselves. Otherwise, always know that there are a lot of people out there too who could be a lot of help to you. I appreciate you asking me because one thing we don’t like is criticism. You hear a lot of that though when you put it out there. You have to contact the community people.
Where is this going to be at in the cities?
Carrie: Wow, that is a big job. Are you going to accommodate both cultures? The Ojibwe and Dakota?
Roxanne: There will be separate tracks. The name of the school is Bdote. The education will be place-based, language immersion education. The language will be core and central but we also want to focus on who the original people were, whose homeland it is, the ecology and culture, the history, the issues and opportunities of this place that is Dakota homeland.
Joe: A little while ago you made a quiet statement but I felt it was very important what you said. “It’s no one’s fault.” It sounded to me like you were saying, blaming won’t get us anywhere, it’s more about doing the job. Could you talk a little more about that?
Carrie: For me, that’s how it’s always been because of my parents. My mother was not a speaker of the English language but my father was so when we started school, that was her thought. What she wanted was for us to bring the language home and use it. It’s a survival thing to learn the English language. Regardless of how you make big change in a culture and the language, it’s always a sense of survival. Like our students, they don’t understand some of the things. It isn’t their fault because they’re not hearing it. That’s what’s out there now. I don’t like to use words that make it sound like the cultures need to share with each other but it’s there. I’d like to see some of that culture coming back into ours. When I say “ours,” I mean the whole Ikce Wicasta, that means all Native people. When we do that, we’re speaking for all of them.
For me now, I’m there at the school and I’m finding a lot of my students are not understanding. They didn’t even know that they belonged to a Seven Council Fires. They still don’t know that. I’ve been teaching that so they know that they have that identity. Who’s to say why they don’t know that. I don’t know why they don’t know that. When you look at the children, like I say, it isn’t their fault. Or anybody’s fault that they didn’t know these things. It just wasn’t there a part of our lives. Sometimes they blame the government for taking so many…I think if it was a sense of survival, any culture will do that, it’s just the way it’s going to be. A lot of our young people, government schools, boarding schools.
I went to Flandreau a year or so. The only reason I did that is our community is so small and I wanted to learn more about all the other tribes and their culture. I thought the language was going to be there. When I get there, nothing was in there, it was like a regular school. We didn’t even have any wacipi. I used to hear some of the young men from out West and that way out in the campus singing their traditional songs. They were never asked to sing at any assemblies. They didn’t have anything cultural going on at the school. But they would sing. That was heartbreaking. I thought I was close to Flandreau so I could come home. I felt so bad for them because of how lonely it must be for them to think of home way over there and school over here. So they sing those songs. Still, again there, it’s not their fault. They’re not forgetting it but they’re so far away from home. They were sent there, brought there, and yet they do have all those memories. They sing to each other, together, to take that ache away, the pain of having to be away from home.
When they say that American Indian children were psychologically changed, you just do it because this is what they want from me. Because that’s a sense of survival where they’re at. I had one young man come to me at 2:00 at night when we were still in the city. I was up late. He came from Chicago trying to find his mother. I knew his mother. I told him where she lived. Here he came at 2:00 that night and said he was leaving. He said, I found my mother, it’s something I needed to do. He was adopted. His parents told him that he was adopted and his mother was still living. They didn’t have to do that but they did that for him. They brought him up really well. He was another one that was well to do after he graduated from college. But he came and he said that he was happy that he was able to meet me and he was going to remember me. He said, I’ll probably never see you again because the lifestyle of his mother. The way he was brought up, he said, I needed to get to know my birth mother, just for myself. Now that I have, he said, I see she has her own life. He didn’t bring her down at all because of her lifestyle. He said, she has her life and I have mine. It makes me grateful in my heart. I’m happy that I got to know my birth mother. He thanked me for the help that I gave him. What do you do, I wasn’t going to say I don’t know his mother, I wasn’t going to do that to him. He was thankful for everything. Now, he said, my life can go on. He said, I can’t change her. I just wanted to tell you, Carrie, that if we never see each other again that I’ll always remember you for helping me go on with my life after finding my mother. He never did come back. I don’t know what his adopted last name was or anything.
There again, why he was adopted, I don’t know that. To me, that’s a burden you have to carry. I always share that with everyone. Sometimes you can adjust to this if you know who you are. His life was good but he still wanted to find his mother and he did. He was happy with that. His adopted parents did tell him that he was Native and where his mother was from and what reservation he was from. They were good parents for him. If they hadn’t adopted him he probably would have been brought up in other places and sometimes that isn’t good. They don’t have the right upbringing.
Diane: Are you still teaching?
Carrie: At the school and in my community. Both the language and the culture. When I say culture, you can’t separate the language and the culture. They’re one and the same. But when it comes to the other things like spirituality, I have other people come in.
Junior high, I’ve graduated how many children now. It’s hard. They all call me Kunsi now, grandma. When they go, they go. A lot of them are doing well, and the heartbreaking part is that a lot of them are not. They get caught up in different things and you just hope for the best for them. You encourage them when you see them.
When I first retired I was over in Bdewakanton, Shakopee. I was over there for four years. Then I came back and started at the school. It’s been over 10 years.
Diane: They’re learning the basics, the Seven Council Fires, something of who they are. Do you see them going on?
Carrie: Yes, they do. They share their language and their knowledge of the Seven Council Fires because maybe their parents don’t know that. That’s kind of surprising for me. I think it’s the generational gap with some of the children not having their parents. They’re brought up in foster care. I don’t know if anybody teaches them. I hate to look at how many years ago when children were sent off to government schools, way across the whole nation. They never see them again, they never come home, they don’t know if they passed on. That’s why I say this one young man that was adopted out, he knew he was adopted so he was able to find his family. But a lot of them way back then they don’t know their roots.
Diane: We see a lot of that in the kids that come out to the farm (Dream of Wild Health). We bring little kids and teenagers out and teach them about gardening and cooking. We’re just starting to bring language into the program, Dakota and Ojibwe. We had the kids work on making signs for the plants. We hope they go on to learn more about themselves.
Carrie: That sounds really great. It’s not just classroom teachings that they’re learning. It’s everything else. Planting is survival and there’s so many things you can share in that way with them. Things like that that you introduce are so important. It’s not like here’s your book, you read it. That isn’t what it is. It comes from within and you enjoy what you’re doing. That’s the way my daughter teaches her kids that come in after class. Everything is Dakota. You walk in that door, Dakota. They’re enjoying it. Nina waste da kapi Sometimes they’re teaching their family because the family doesn’t know these things. When they come in for the language on Tuesday evenings we bring food and we all share in that. The children will share with their family what they’re eating and it’s all in Dakota. Sometimes it’s like they’re telling them, you don’t get any of this until you tell me what it is. That kind of teaching, hands-on in a comfortable setting…no one is going to listen to you when you’re shaking a finger at them. I just go over there and I break it off.
Roxanne: We appreciate you on so many different levels. You’ve been teaching for over 40 years. You must have taught hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands, of students. The impact that your teaching has had is enormous. When I first came to Minnesota I kept hearing about Kunsi Carrie. I thought I’ve got to meet this Kunsi Carrie because she has touched so many of our young people’s lives, and older people too. She also helped to name our granddaughter with Jim’s dad.
Joe: I took a Dakota class at the U when you were there. The lady who taught me was Becky.
Carrie: Yes, Becky, she was my elder. And Marie was my elder. We were all there together. In the Ojibwe class, they were my elders. I knew when to shut me off. Otherwise they’re going to say I toe gosh anina be kah . Can you be quiet for a while now? Those are words to listen to, especially for me. I can say I listened to all of that.
We were all on one floor in the Social Sciences Building. Every now and then I’d be doing my work and I’d have to get up and run over to the Ojibwe classroom and we’d just talk. I knew when they were saying Dakota woman or girl was ikwe. When they would say that I would say, I know you’re talking about me. I’d say, I’m going to leave you then. I’d just do that. Marie Decora said in Dakota to Becky, meaning I had a lot of energy. What bird was it that she said I reminded her of. I learned how to say it in Ojibwe and Dakota. It’s a bird that flits here and there and then comes back. So the Dakota ladies called me that bird in Dakota and the Ojibwe ladies called me that in Ojibwe. I hope it was that! We were all very kind to each other.
I have to tell you this. First we lost Rose when she resigned. There was a personality conflict with Gerald Vizenor. Because of the knowledge and some of the things he shared in what he wrote, she really contradicted him, saying that’s not the way it was. She would confront him and say, why did you say that when you didn’t consult anyone because that isn’t the way it was. You did not consult any of the elders. Of course by that time he was who he was. It got to a point where she said, I’m going to be leaving you. I said, why, are you okay? She said, I’m well but it’s not going to be too well for the Ojibwe language department because she had that conflict with Gerald Vizenor. He had a lot of clout with the powers that be. She said, better that I leave before that happens because I disagree, a lot of people disagree, with some of the things he wrote. So she resigned and she left. That just left Angie Northbird and that young man, Colins Oakgrove. Rose left and then she died shortly after that. Marie left us and then she died. That left Becky and Angie and me and Colins, the young ones. Becky had to leave because of her health and Angie got cancer and she had to leave her position. So it was just me and Colins.
That first fall after losing all of them, they were all gone, I went to the first day of class. I was walking across campus and all of a sudden it hit me, I am the only one left besides Collins. Our two Dakota ladies were gone. I don’t think I want to be here anymore. I just stood there in the middle of that campus, buses going all over, and thought, I don’t want to do this anymore. I just don’t feel up to it. I sat down for a while and I did a lot of praying. I knew I had to make a decision, do I want to stay or am I going to tell them I’m not going to be coming back anymore. I just felt that way, all of a sudden this heavy loneliness for my ladies that I worked with. Now it was just me and the young man. I didn’t stop to think about what all we had done. Afterward I thought to myself, you know, you’re being very selfish. You just don’t do that when you say you’re going to be doing something, especially with your culture. You don’t do that. So I was reasoning with myself right there on campus. I was ready to just walk off campus and call them and say, I don’t want to do it anymore. What came over me, I don’t know. I sat there for a while and thought, you don’t do things this way. You have to do it the right way.
I went to class that day and met all my students. I didn’t share what my thoughts were with anyone because there wasn’t anybody there to share it with. I went home and shared it with my family. I told them what I thought. I said, I miss those ladies. I don’t know what I’m doing there without them. They agreed with me. They said, mom, if you want to quit, go ahead and do it. It’s your decision. We’re not going to say, oh good, mom, you’re going to be home all day. I had my grandchildren then too. That was a decision that I came to. I always wonder why was I tested like that right on that day of class in the middle of this big city and campus. This Dakota woman standing there, what am I doing here? I went back but I did retire after that year. I needed to retire and come home.
I worked with the language at home. But that was a weird feeling of loneliness, like I was the only Dakota, the only Native person on that big campus. What am I doing here? All the things that we had done there were already there. I don’t know what it was but I overcame that and finished it the way I was supposed to finish it. To this day I don’t know what came over me. I think it was just the overwhelming feeling of being alone there with my elders gone. Anyway, that’s a part of who we are. Every culture has those feelings. In the Native culture we have a stronger heart and feeling for who we are, who they were, and how we were. All of a sudden it just hit me, they’re no longer there. That tugged at my heart. So I didn’t quit. I often ponder that, why did I get such a heavy feeling like that. But I guess it was because I admired those people. It was wonderful. For the two cultures to be shared like that at a huge educational place like that, at the University of Minnesota.
Joe: That’s what I always appreciated about Becky was that she made you feel welcome.
Carrie: Oh yes, yes.
Joe: I felt like I belong in this class.
Carrie: Yes, yes. We used to have those feasts all the time to make kids feel good. And ceremonies to strengthen their spirit for the coming school year. I feel a little lonely when I go there. I got invited there to meet some author but I couldn’t make it. What was it, we met at the President’s home. It was an Elders’ Council meeting. We had lunch there with the President. The one I really liked was the Norwegian, Hasselhoff. I loved that man. You know, he used to go with us down at Prairie Island. He had lunch with us right in the community center, no big place like this. We ate right there at the center. We had fry bread and oh, did he love that. He was the first one to have us at the President’s house.
What’s this last one? I know we didn’t visit Keller. This last one was really nice too but I don’t think he liked being the president. It was nice when we got to go be in the president’s home. In those days I used to wear heels, like these platforms but they were never that high.
At school here I was in the choir. At Christmas time they were going to have the chorus thing. My sister had a pair of heels. I think I was 14 or 15 years old. She said, you can wear my shoes because you’re going to be wearing that cape or whatever it was. She said, it might be too long. You can wear my heels. I was so happy. They were kind of a lavender purple suede. They had a platform. I wore those when I got up on the stage. I looked down and they couldn’t see my shoes anyway. That was just the way you dressed. We just followed suit.
Diane: We always like to ask if there is anything that you would like to add that we didn’t ask, or it didn’t come up. Is there anything especially for the people who will read the profiles on PIE’s (Phillips Indian Educators) website? A lot of people in education who work with Native children. Is there anything else you want to add to that?
Carrie: I don’t really think so. The other thing is that I don’t read anything that is on those websites. If there is anything to be critical about, from what people tell me, there are some things that shouldn’t be out there. The things that are out there for the children are good. There isn’t anything that you can change about that. You share whatever your knowledge is about that, like your own family or relatives, what you would like to be teaching them. You see it out there. I would encourage any of that.
When it comes to educating, you’re educating more than just your own culture. There’s a lot of other cultures out there that view those things. The one thing that you need to do is to be very careful of how you put that out there. The first impression if they don’t understand the culture or the language is what they’re going to get. If you don’t have it out there the way it should be, they might get negative thoughts about it. What can be so negative about any of our cultures? There’s nothing negative about our Native culture. Everything is positive. There isn’t anything that I would suggest except that. It needs to be done with a lot of respect. We don’t disrespect other cultures just so we can be heard. We are who we are and that is what needs to be out there. Don’t use anything that is going to be offensive to the White culture or any other culture. It’s our culture, it’s your culture, it’s your spirituality, it’s your language. Use it the way it’s supposed to be used. I know that you’re all doing that. You don’t want to ever put anything out there to offend anyone.
For us, everything that you do that you put out there, always you’re going to say to yourself, this looks good to me but maybe I’m going to have someone else check it out. I’ve had book reviews on language books that are coming from some of our own people and they send copies of it to me. I go over them. Sometimes there’s a few things because of how we understand each other through the language.
I never noticed anything different about our language when I was growing up. When someone else spoke to me in Dakota, I understood it. I didn’t see any differences in how some of the words are changed. You can see that when you see the language written, and the language being used, you’re going to hear little different speech patterns that I probably would not use but still it’s used in the right way so I’m not going to be critical about that. That’s understood that it’s just their way of putting it out there. The Assiniboine people, their language is like Dakota but some of the words and word pronunciations are different. As long as it’s understood, I can’t be critical.
When it comes to the spirituality you want to be very careful on that one. If you’re going to share that make sure that you consult the right people. I don’t even want to advise anyone when it comes to that. The way I was brought up, the way I see myself and my people here in this community, what I put out there for my family I put out there for the community too. Why would I just want to do that for my family when I can’t share it with the others? That’s where it’s at. You want to be very careful with spirituality. The spirituality is what is within you but if you put something out there from your own thoughts, you’re going to get all the criticism from your Dakota people. And you do not want that. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. That’s one thing you really want to make sure is that whatever you put out there is what it is. I haven’t seen anything but sometimes I do. Sometimes it’s not written by a Native person or put out there by a Native person so they’re second guessing on things. It can easily be misunderstood if you don’t use the right thoughts.
It’s not really for anyone to criticize because sometimes they don’t understand it themselves. You have to know that even the different speech patterns can sometimes make a difference in how you put something out there. Someone over here is going to criticize you for using that speech pattern when that isn’t the way they say it over here. You want to make it clear that the speech patterns are not used by all people in different communities. Over in Morton when I speak with the few that understand Dakota, you can hear the Ihanktonwan in there but I still understand it. I don’t say you’re saying that different from the way I say it. We don’t criticize each other that way because it’s understood that’s the way the speech patterns are in the different Dakota groups. That was never any issue at all ever. Now it is. People will say, these are the learners of the language that will do that to you. It’s even been done to me. I like that because then I know that they’re understanding their own language. They’re protecting themselves and the language. Criticism is what you get if someone is maybe from Ihanktonwan or another part of North or South Dakota. She’ll say, she’s not saying that the way we say that. Well, you don’t say things the way I say it either. What’s the difference.
I never ever ever had that in my thought at all about the differences until I started meeting a lot of people from different areas with the language. In my community, kuza means lazy. Out West, whether it’s a D speaker or the L speakers, kuza means to be sick. When I first heard that, this young man was talking and saying a special prayer for the family of this young man because he’s very kuza. The way I heard it, he was praying for a man that was lazy. And then I thought, they have to mean something else. Then I thought he was very sick. That’s what you want to watch out for.
I really appreciate all of you for being here. For me, it does my spirit a lot of good to know that it’s out there and you’re working with it. I don’t want to hear where people say, oh, the language is dead. When you say “the language,” you’re talking about the culture and it’s who we are. That’s not true. We can’t say that. I always say, whenever you feel like you’re kind of doubtful about something, even me for as old as I am I sometimes doubt, I question, and you get a little zing for thinking that way at your age. I get that feeling, why am I thinking like this? Somebody just bokpi me on the head.