Manitoba

Puppet gives Manitoba First Nation kids a hand at learning Dakota language

In a typical Manitoba school, students learn English and, sometimes, French. But education leaders in a Manitoba First Nation are turning to some unique methods to try and save their native language.

Students take in puppet show called 'Ih'ah'aya', or 'laughing all of the time'

In a typical Manitoba school, students learn English and, sometimes, French. But education leaders in a Manitoba First Nation are turning to some unique methods to try and save their native language. 1:40

In a typical Manitoba school, students learn English and, sometimes, French. But education leaders in a Manitoba First Nation are turning to some unique methods to try and save their native language. 

On Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, located 240 kilometres west of Winnipeg, elementary and middle school students take mandatory Dakota language classes as part of their school curriculum.

"In the past we haven't had much of the culture," said Tamara Tacan, one of the school's language instructors. "It's been a hard sell, I guess." 

On Wednesday, the community's school hosted a Dakota language puppet show for students by Redwing Thomas, a Dakota language instructor who drove ten hours from Nebraska.

"I love it. I love their energy," Thomas said after one of the two shows he presented on Wednesday. "I love their smiles. I love the way they make me feel."
Students look on as Redwing Thomas presents a puppet show in the Dakota language while in Sioux Valley First Nation, Man. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

For Thomas, it was a reunion of sorts. His home reserve in Nebraska and Sioux Valley share bloodlines, family names and even relatives. 

In his community, just eight of the 4,000 people speak the Dakota language. He's been a language teacher for 16 years, but decided to try something new this spring and started presenting some of his teachings as a puppet show called 'Ih'ah'aya', which means "laughing all of the time." 

In the show, Ralphie and his family members interactively help the children learn and recite basic Dakota words and phrases. Thomas believes the children are more receptive to a family of puppets than learning in a traditional classroom setting. 

"I have watched children listen quicker to a puppet," he said.
Redwing Thomas brought a Dakota language puppet show to Sioux Valley First Nation, Man., as the school works to teach the traditional language to its youth. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Teaching a new generation 

The puppet show is just one way the school is instilling the community's traditional language into the new generation of children.

"He speaks exactly like us and I thought it was a pretty good opportunity for him to come and for the kids to see that it can be fun, that people still do talk in Dakota," Tacan said, adding that teaching the Dakota language has been nothing short of a challenge. 

"We've been working on developing our own resources," she said. "It's been a challenge... we're trying to develop worksheets and teach." 

Tacan said Dakota language worksheets for subjects like math and science classes don't exist, so they've had to develop their own curriculum. Before they are given to students, Tacan and her co-instructor Lisa Taylor have community elders vet them for accuracy. 

Race against time 

In many ways, teaching the Dakota language is a race against time. As the community's elders age and pass away, valuable language resources and speakers are disappearing.

"That's the scary part," Tacan said. "We're losing our language people [and expertise] ... we try not to make stuff up." 

Tacan said up until now, some youth were afraid to speak the language for fear of being bullied or teased. But she sees that starting to change. 
Sioux Valley First Nation brought in Redwing Thomas, a language instructor from Nebraska, as part of ongoing efforts to teach the community's young the traditional Dakota language. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

"They really, really enjoy it," she said. "I can see light bulbs going off when we have discussions."

A group of Grade 8 students recently won third place at a Dakota language bowl in Nebraska, meaning some of the teaching appears to be paying off.  

"I think we're ... we're okay. We're doing good."