Manitoba

How a Sioux Valley elder may have saved her community's language with her work to preserve Dakota

Doris Pratt doesn’t need a dictionary to translate words from her first language — Dakota — to English. That’s because she wrote it.

Doris Pratt translated for teachers at residential school before researching and writing Dakota dictionaries

Doris Pratt, an elder from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in western Manitoba, still gets telephone requests for translation. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Doris Pratt doesn't need a dictionary to translate words from her first language — Dakota — to English.

That's because she wrote it.

"I was proud of it," said Pratt, 83, of her first edition of the Dakota language dictionary she wrote and illustrated in 1982.

"To me, it was beautiful. It was really, actually, an ugly little book."

Nearly 40 years later, Pratt, who is now in a wheelchair and living in a retirement home, still gets phone calls daily with requests for translation, she said with a chuckle.

"I'll check it out and if there isn't a word, it means I have to find a word and make a new word."

Doris Pratt describes some of the differences between the languages: 

Doris Pratt describes translating Dakota into English 0:32

Pratt, an elder on the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in western Manitoba, is one of the stewards of the language. She's devoted nearly 50 years to preserving the language and the dialects specific to Manitoba and Canada.

She also spent years translating documents, such as census forms and documents from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, from English into Dakota for the federal government 

Her work started formally in 1972, when she was looking for resources on the Dakota language specific to Canada.

"I started getting together some of these things," she said. "The language in the [United States] … was a little different.

"I felt nothing was done for Dakota language that I knew of in Canada."

Residential school 

But her work to preserve the language began informally when she was a young girl going to day school and residential school in Elkhorn, Man.

Pratt's first language was Dakota, but she was exposed to and learned English at a young age. She grew up in a family of nine and her older siblings, who also went to residential schools, spoke English when they came home.

The front cover of one of Doris Pratt's dictionaries. She has written several since her first in 1982. (Supplied by Evelyn Pratt)

She first started translating at age six, when the missionary teaching her class had trouble instructing some of the children who only spoke Dakota.

"She depended on me to translate what she wanted to tell the children," Pratt said. "She'd say, 'Doris, I want you to tell the children they have to sit down.' "

Many students were punished for speaking the language in residential school, Pratt said, but she also was punished by other students for helping the teachers.

Watch Doris Pratt describe how she was treated by fellow students at residential school:

Doris Pratt translated for teachers at residential school before researching and writing Dakota dictionaries 0:57

She got involved in preserving the language in university years later, while also attaining a teaching degree and a master's in education. She was the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from YWCA Brandon for her work.

Pratt also studied at the University of Arizona, home to the American Indian Language Development Institute.

"I loved it," she said of her time there. "It was hot as blazes, but I didn't care."

Passing on dream

One of her dreams was to see a similar type of institute created in Canada to preserve Indigenous languages from across the country in one place.

"That's somebody else's bag of tricks now," Pratt said.

Doris Pratt describes writing the Dakota language dictionary: 

Doris Pratt on writing the Dakota language dictionary 0:40

Her studies in Arizona and her own research motivated her to work even harder to preserve the Dakota language in Sioux Valley through the creation of glossaries, dictionaries and other educational materials used in the community's school.

She started with the days of the week and months of the year and went from there.

"We are here today because of me I guess," she said. "I wanted to keep on and really make things happen for the language."

This is an inside page of one of Doris Pratt's dictionaries. (Supplied by Evelyn Pratt)

The Dakota language has stark differences from English, she said. For example, the letter C is broken into four different sounds in Dakota, making translating difficult for beginners.

She was criticized at first for the amount of work she put into the effort.

"Oh my gosh, there was so many people. They were so critical," she said. "You can criticize all you want. I'm doing it this way."

The criticism has subsided and she believes her efforts likely saved the language.

"The students of Dakota have to know these unique sounds," she said. "That's the only way they'll learn the language.

"That took me years to figure all these out and put it down on paper and tell others. Now others are getting it."

While residential schools may have suppressed traditional languages, and in some cases driven them to extinction, there's time to save those that are still being spoken, she said.

She believes her work is now largely done — at 83, her eyesight isn't what it used to be and she can no longer translate long, complicated legal documents the way she used to. It's now time for someone else to take the baton and run with it.

"There's nothing stopping you from taking it back," she said. "Learn the language. It empowers people when they have their own.

"Your language, take it back."

Many signs and buildings in Sioux Valley now have their Dakota names and translations below the English. (Riley Laychuk/CBC )

About the Author

Riley Laychuk is CBC's reporter based in Brandon, covering rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback: riley.laychuk@cbc.ca.