Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Dakota iapi wadawa he?"

Maybe I was a bit premature when I mentioned that I no longer care about my two Bachelor's degrees the other day. I'm still not using them, I have no plans to do so any time soon and they are definitely never going to earn me any money. But, I did sign up for those classes for a reason...

Some of those reasons came flooding back to me today when my T.A. from my Dakota language program sent me a message on Facebook. In Dakota.
My first major in college was Anthropology. I have always been fascinated with people, our evolution, our social constructs, our primate heritage, our languages, our religions, and on and on. I officially majored in political science for one quarter and studio arts for another but it was no surprise when I settled on Anthropology for my major during the last quarter of my freshman year. (My very first Anthropology class was in high school and I loved it, so really...I'd known since then.)

Anyway. To get this Liberal Arts degree, I had to take a language. I took French in high school and was told by my French teacher (after 4 1/2 years of lessons and going from an "A" to an almost failing grade in my senior year) that I was going to have to go to a French-speaking country to learn any more of this language. She generously set me free with a satisfactory grade and made me promise to go to France one day (I did. I hated it. A story for another day.).

So what language could I start up in college? The courses of the American Indian Studies Department showed up first on the alphabetical list and I saw that they were teaching both Dakota language and Ojibwe language. Given that I'm pretty much a product of the whole French-Canadian-Indian-fur-trade-thing,* I instantly thought it would be cool to learn one of those two Indian languages. Dakota fit into my schedule, so I signed up.**

On the first day of class, my new Dakota teacher (Wahpetunwin*** Carolynn Schommer) told us to put away our books. That was the only English I ever heard from her mouth. She taught us the language by speaking and listening. It was five days a week, one hour a day and we had the same classmates for the entire year (I still remember their faces and names). It was a two-year program to become proficient and "pass" for our various Liberal Arts degrees.
So for two years I met with the same folks every day to speak and learn Dakota. We studied at a bar on Monday nights, we had monthly feasts in the lobby of the American Indian Studies department (my first taste of bison, I haven't always been a vegetarian), and we translated American Indian children's tales into Dakota and performed them in front of audiences. We watched the movie "Dances With Wolves" and covered up the sub-titles to see if we could understand it (we mostly did, though they were speaking Lakota in the movie). We had some written exams but most were oral. Our final proficiency exams were recorded and shown to the elders of one of our local reservations for them to decide if we were proficient.

Since I had become a part of the American Indian Studies "family" through my Dakota lessons, it was only natural that I take a few other courses from the department each quarter. Most of them complemented my Anthropology studies well and they all "counted" towards the end goal of the Liberal Arts degree. I shouldn't have been surprised (though I was anyway) when my advisor in the American Indian Studies department pulled me into his office one day to ask me what my final project for the major would be.

"What? I'm majoring in Anthropology, not Indian Studies."

To which he replied, "You only need one more class to have a second major in Indian Studies."

A pretty painless way to get another major, huh? I didn't even know I was doing it, I just liked the classes.

Back to today:

"Dakota iapi wadawa he? --Ishna"

Ishna**** was my T.A. He found me on Facebook and asked me if I could read Dakota. I didn't know that's what it said until after I had dug out all of my old lessons, vocabulary, verbs and stories from the basement, and my trusty dictionary that was ever-present in my backpack all the way through college. So I guess the answer was "No. I can't read Dakota." But it sure brought back a lot of memories.

Pouring over the pages, the words did a little dance right in front of my eyes...the kind worthy of a fantasy movie about books and stories or something. I could read it all but I didn't remember what it said. I heard all of my classmates speaking along with me all at once as my eyes went over the words. I could remember faces and places and funny classroom moments. I could taste the fry bread that we had at those feasts and instantly wanted more. I actually wanted to study the words again and see if I could resurrect it from my brain before it's lost forever...

"I'has'awin emakiyapi ye. Nish? Toked eniciyapi he?"
*My great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was a full-blooded Indian woman--half Dakota and half Ojibwe. She married a French guy. The only photo we have of her shows her in Victorian dress up to the high-neck collar, but then her long braids and dark skin declare her true heritage.

**I was pretty lucky to have selected Dakota over Ojibwe in this "eenie-meenie-miny-mo" fashion, considering that Ojibwe is one of the most difficult languages to learn in the entire world. I've heard that it's been ranked the third most difficult--with English and Chinese being harder--though I can't back that up.

***Wahpetunwin means "Leaf Dweller Woman."

****Ishna was his Dakota name. It was short for Ishnasunktokca and it means "Lone Wolf."

My Dakota name was "Laughs A Lot Woman" or "I'has'awin." My teacher named me on the first day of class. Hmm. I wonder why...


Day to Day Tripper said...

I am an Indian women as well! My grandma is half which makes me 1/8th....we are French Canadian Indian as well from the Turtle Mountain Tribe just north of North Dakota in Canada. My grandma never registered with the tribe so I'm not official. She never talks about her Indian side. She is French and Indian.

Too cool!

Clare said...

I am envious Catherine! I am of the same ancestry, but never had the opportunity to learn much about it.

Has this re-inspired you to keep this alive in your mind and heart? Hope so.

Hege said...

Interesting read!
I didn't know you could learn to speak/read indian (?). sounds like a lot of fnu though ;)

We hava a native language here in norway too. Samisk - the language of the sami people.

Gretchen said...

That's all kinds of awesome! My heritage includes the Missouri band of Chiwere speaking Sioux. Unfortunately, there are no longer any speakers of that dialect.

I have an Anthropology degree as well- I added it along with my History degree eons ago. I don't use either right now- unless learning the habits of small American children counts (I'm a SAHM to four). My husband, on the other hand, is an anthropologist at the UW-Madison. So I get to absorb anthropology on a daily basis- though my studies were focused on cultural, and he's a bio.

Anyway- way cool on the American Indian Studies! There's a Folklore program here that really apeals to me. Maybe someday!

thursday said...

Well, I'm not Native American (that I know of - it'd be pretty far back there if I were)... but I did major in Anthropology, too. My focus was archaeology, though, not cultural anth. I even did grad school for a while, before I realized I had no intention of becoming an academic myself. So, I'm with you - not really using my degree.

Guinifer said...

Funny how many people pop up with similar heritage! My Grandfather was from Quebec, and there was always a family rumor that his mom was Native American, though there is no documentation to prove it.

Guinifer said...

I meant to say how interesting your story was! Thanks for sharing.

sellgen said...

Loved hearing the full version of your Dakota studies-- always meant to ask you about it!