In a classroom tucked away at Flandreau High School, more than two dozen students are learning a local language.
They echo Dakota words after their teachers speak them, and they answer questions in the language. On a recent day, Nalani Beaulieu, a freshman, went through a lengthy introduction of herself all in Dakota.
“I wanted to learn my language and get to know my culture,” she said.
While a few other school districts in the state offer a Native language class, this is the first year for Flandreau’s Dakota language class, and with 26 students learning the local dialect in two sections of classes, interest has been good.
“We had a lot more interest in it, but it didn’t work into everybody’s schedule,” said Principal Nichole Herzog. “They’re really enjoying learning about the Dakota language and the different aspects of the Dakota culture.”
The district has a three-year grant for the program, and the class’s three teachers, who are Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe members, are certified to teach the course. Avery Jones is the lead teacher and is helped by Devin Drapeau and Dusty Beaulieu.
Jones, 29, said he has been speaking the language since he was 10, learning from his grandfather. He wanted to teach the class to interest new learners and help the language survive another generation because the number of speakers is small right now.
“The kids actually wanted this. They made this happen,” Jones said of work by a student committee. He also sees the students at the community center where they come for the culture or spiritual side of the Dakota.
“I want to teach my own people first. I feel like it’s been received well,” he said. “I hope for the majority, it means something. It gives them a better understanding of themselves.”
Language is important to culture and a sense of belonging, Jones said.
“The loss of identity is a major issue in Indian County,” he said. “You cannot have culture without the language.”
Students are picking up on Dakota fast because they get to practice it every day, Monday through Friday, Jones said.
Michael Tollefson, a sophomore, said language has been part of his family and he wants to bring it back. “I go to culture club, and they all speak that over there, and I kind of want to learn it,” he said.
Kyeauna Schmit, a junior, is taking Dakota and Spanish, which represent both of her cultures. She practices Dakota with her grandmother, Julie Hamer, who learned as a child.
“My grandma is a fluent speaker. Now she doesn’t really have anybody, and she’s starting to lose it. I thought it would be interesting to catch on and follow in her footstep,” Schmit said.
Schmit hopes other students get involved and the program grows. “We’re thankful our school has allowed it to come in here and be taught,” she said.