Preschool Aims to Keep the Dakota Language Alive


A young educator plans to open an immersion school in Minnesota, where only five Dakota first-language speakers remain. Funding and staffing challenges often face such schools, but Vanessa Goodthunder is determined to “help heal historical trauma.” (Christian Science Monitor)

How are Native Americans in California working to preserve another endangered language? Watch this great video lesson from our partners at the Global Oneness Project to learn more.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

Assiniboine (Nakota), Dakota, and Lakota peoples, like this boy at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, compose the main branches of Sioux identity.
Photograph by Aaron Huey, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

  • The Lower Sioux Head Start in Morton, Minnesota, is slated to open this summer. It will be a Dakota-language immersion school. What is the Dakota language?
    • Dakota is an indigenous language historically spoken by the Dakota people, one of the main branches of the larger Sioux identity. There are two Dakota subcultures.
      • The Eastern Dakota (Santee) largely reside in the eastern Dakotas, western Minnesota, and northern Iowa.
      • The Western Dakota (Yankton) largely reside in the western Dakotas, Montana, and southern Saskatchewan.
    • Dakota is mutually intelligible with its sister languages, Lakota and Assiniboine (sometimes called Nakota).
    • Dakota is a critically endangered language with fewer than 500 fluent speakers, and only five in Minnesota.
    • Listen to Dakota with these short, child-focused phrasebook videos here.


  • What are some reasons why there are so few fluent speakers of Dakota?
    • discrimination and racism.Beginning in the 1870s and lasting until the 1950s, the federal government took thousands of Native children away from their families to attend [boarding] schools that forbade students to speak in their Native languages, sometimes washing out the mouths of those who did so with soap.”
      • Parents did not teach the language or traditions to their children in order to protect them from punishment and mistreatment.
      • Vanessa Goodthunder, the young founder of Lower Sioux Head Start, is not a native Dakota speaker. Although she was always interested in the language, she only started learning it as a college student.


  • Teaching in immersion is one of the hardest situations in all of education,” says Peter Hill, an educator at a Lakota preschool in South Dakota. What are some examples of difficulties facing indigenous-language immersion schools?
    • Educators must create or translate entire textbooks and curricula in all subjects taught at the school.
    • With so few speakers of languages such as Dakota or Lakota, it is difficult to find speakers who are willing and prepared to teach. Some teachers, the article notes, learn to speak the language as they teach.
    • Educators must teach students a language that their families, most peers, and popular culture do not use or even understand. This limits the support students can find.




Christian Science Monitor: To keep the Dakota language alive, a young woman looks to preschoolers

Nat Geo: Recording a Dying Language

Ethnologue: Dakota

Association on American Indian Affairs: Dakota Language Program videos

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