PRAIRIE ISLAND INDIAN RESERVATION, Minn: A way of life is found in translation

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Jun 3 13:19:48 UTC 2007

A way of life is found in translation
By Judy Keen, USA TODAY

PRAIRIE ISLAND INDIAN RESERVATION, Minn.  A few years ago, Wayne Wells'
grandmother asked him in her native Dakota if he was going to town. "It
took me a year and a half to understand what she was asking and to answer
her," he says. During that time, Wells, 32, learned Dakota while he was a
student at the University of Minnesota. Now, with the help of a high-tech
translating device developed for military use in Iraq and Afghanistan,
he's teaching the language to other members of his Mdewakanton Sioux tribe
who live on the reservation southeast of St. Paul.

Troops at checkpoints in Iraq and Afghanistan, medics and other U.S.
forces use the Phraselator P2 to communicate. It was first used by the
military in late 2001 in Afghanistan. Now the paperback-size translator is
being used by about 55 Indian tribes in the USA to preserve their
languages. What began here three years ago as a weekly potluck dinner
followed by Dakota lessons has grown into a program with three classes
taught by Wells, who works for the Prairie Island Indian Community.
There's a beginners class on Tuesdays, a Wednesday noon class for adults
and another on Wednesday evenings for intermediate students. Dozens of the
711 tribe members who live on the reservation are taking classes.

Interest piqued

The language was on the verge of extinction until Wells and tribal
treasurer Alan Childs wrote a proposal for the tribal council to fund
language training on the reservation. Only four men, tribal elders who
grew up speaking Dakota, were fluent. "The Dakota way of life is in the
language," Wells says. "We couldn't lose it." Kachina Yeager, 12, is an
intermediate student, and her mom, Shelley Buck-Yeager, is in the adult
class. "We all ask questions to each other in class and go around in a
circle," Kachina says. She also enjoys playing Scrabble on a custom-made
board in Dakota. Kachina has used the Phraselator a few times. "It was fun
but sort of confusing," she says. Still, she's learning. She and her mom
use Dakota phrases at home, Kachina says: "Every now and then she'll say
something like 'hurry up' in Dakota."

Interest in language lessons picked up after the prosperous tribe, which
operates the Treasure Island Resort & Casino here, bought five
Phraselators this year. The handheld devices cost about $3,300 each and
can be programmed with thousands of Dakota phrases. Users speak a phrase
in English or use a menu to find the phrase they want, then the machine
plays it in Dakota. The Phraselator was developed by Voxtec International
for use by U.S.  troops, says John Hall, president of the company in
Annapolis, Md. About 5,000 are being used by U.S. forces now, he says. "We
started research and development with military applications, but very
early on we realized that there were a lot of markets that had this need,"
Hall says. The Phraselator also is being used by U.S. law enforcement
departments, emergency medical teams and construction companies, he says.

Don Thornton, who is half Cherokee and president of Thornton Media in
Banning, Calif., markets the device to Indian tribes in the USA and Canada
to preserve their languages. One California tribe bought Phraselators for
every member, he says. "We see this as a way for a tribe to control its
own destiny," Thornton says. Curtis Campbell, 71, sits on a recliner in
his living room, wearing a headset with a microphone that's linked to a
laptop operated by Wells.  Campbell is one of three tribal elders
recording phrases in their native language for use in the Phraselator.
Wells will later download Campbell's words into the device. Wells reads a
phrase in English, then says, "Ready, one, two, three."  Campbell repeats
the phrase in Dakota. Some of Campbell's responses to fragments such as "I
know it" and "from over there"  are quite short, but others require a lot
of words.

When Wells asks Campbell to translate "the University of Minnesota," the
elder says what sounds like a full sentence in Dakota: "In this land they
now call Minnesota, there's a place for higher learning." There's a debate
when Wells asks Campbell, a retired construction worker, to translate
"student." "There are several ways to address that," Campbell says. He
could say "boys and girls that are attending school" or "that person
seeking knowledge.  Females or males? How many? What are they learning?"
He shrugs. "I don't think there's one word that covers it all," he says.
Dakota, which for centuries was a spoken language only, was first written
by missionaries in the 1840s. The language includes no profanities or
insults, Campbell says, and is more descriptive than English. "It's more
expressive," he says. "You have words that are deeper in emotions."

In Dakota, Monday is "this is the first day." Since Christians came to
Indian country, the Dakota word for Sunday is "sacred day." The Dakota
phrase for Saturday is "the day to wash your clothes and floors." When
Wells suggests that Campbell use a translation that's in his class plan,
Campbell says, "Throw those books away."

Appreciation grows

The resurgence of Dakota on the Prairie Island reservation has been
accompanied by appreciation for other facets of tribal culture. Childs
began conducting singing and drum classes for boys to coincide with
Tuesday language class, which attracted mostly girls. Then a tribe member
volunteered to teach a course on traditional cooking. Next came a beading
class. There's newfound respect for the art of storytelling and discussion
about recording the tales that were passed down to the elders. Childs
hopes to arrange classes for a sign language that was once understood by
all U.S.  tribes.

Wells and Childs eventually want to send Phraselators home to help
families learn their language. His grandchildren, Childs says, could start
learning as infants and, in turn, pass it along to their children. Knowing
Dakota, Childs says, instills "self-esteem and pride" in the tribe's young
members. "And identity," Wells adds.


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