Growing Artists and Sustaining the Dakota Way of Life

As part of efforts to pass down artistry through intergenerational learning, staff and youth meet with artist James Star Comes Out at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

As part of efforts to pass down artistry through intergenerational learning, staff and youth meet with artist James Star Comes Out at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

When Dakota Wicohan began, it was a small grassroots organization dedicated to revitalizing Dakota language. Today, it has evolved into a multi-program resource preserving and sustaining not only Dakota language but all Dakota culture through art, education and outreach. Now, with its latest grant from First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), Dakota Wicohan is expanding its arts programming and investing in the infrastructure needed to serve the small, rural communities of southwest Minnesota and promote the healing and strength that comes from the Dakota ways.

Art as a Lifeway

Dakota Wicohan formed in 2001 when a few students were learning the Dakota language at the University of Minnesota. They soon realized how close the language was to being lost forever, bringing with it the values and spirit of the Dakota people. With a focus on capturing and passing down the language, which is currently only spoken by three remaining Dakota elders in the state, the students organized to revitalize the “D dialect” spoken by the Dakota bands indigenous to the Minnesota region.

From there, their organization made gradual moves to not only teach the language, but weave language into other program areas, including youth leadership and education, even playing a role in expanding school curriculum in Minnesota to include Dakota history.

The making of horse regalia, including this mask titled Wokiksuye, is a way art is used to honor and celebrate horses as part of the Dakota culture.

The making of horse regalia, including this mask titled Wokiksuye, is a way art is used to honor and celebrate horses as part of the Dakota culture.

A long-term grantee of First Nations since 2015, Dakota Wicohan is using its most recent grant award through the Native Arts Initiative to advance another program area, traditional Native art, as a Dakota lifeway. To date, support from First Nations had helped the organization form efforts to identify and support local artists and create a master and apprentice program to pass down artistry through intergenerational learning. The group started with traditional Dakota quilling, brain tanning, and beading, and moved on to include quilting of the Dakota eight-point star, which tells the story of Dakota origins.

Ultimately, Dakota Wicohan launched the Tawokaga Art program, which has become the only program of its kind in the area. Through the formalized Tawokaga group, the community and youth outreach and master apprenticeships have grown, even to the point of being able to revitalize the artistry of traditional horse regalia.

“This had been a pipe dream for us,” says program director Eileen O’Keefe. Now, the organization is able to incorporate its youth programming with the arts programming, teaching kids how to take of horses and also honor and celebrate horses through the making of masks, blankets and chest plates.

Dakota Wicohan is keeping this progression moving through the Growing Dakota Artists program, says O’Keefe. Through the program, they are circling back with the community to gauge their interest in full classes of traditional artforms they hadn’t been able to perpetuate to date, including beading, parfleche, flute carving, painting and drawing. For all artforms, master artists will create a curriculum describing the significance of the art to Dakota culture and will outline steps and create a hands-on demonstration for workshop participants. Presentations will incorporate the Dakota language and will be recorded and then condensed and adapted for youth participants.

Art for Healing. Art for All.

Through this grant, Dakota Wicohan is increasing its impact, which has already been felt throughout Minnesota. With the current grant, it has bolstered its reach, adding eight workshops and classes, which are targeted to reach more than 100 community members and 40 youth every year.

More youth take a field trip to Gibbs Farm for hands-on learning about Dakota ways and language.

More youth take a field trip to Gibbs Farm for hands-on learning about Dakota ways and language.

O’Keefe says investing in art and nurturing the next generation of artists is essential for many reasons. There is an economic component, making it possible for artists to sell their work and make a living. Moreover, O’Keefe says art promotes pride in the Dakota culture.

“Growing up, I had no sense of that,” says O’Keefe. “Art was not practiced or passed down, and we didn’t talk about what it means to be Dakota.” Further, she says there was trauma to heal from colonization and boarding schools. The language was disappearing, along with the strength and honor of the Dakota ways.

Through art, O’Keefe says, there is healing. Master apprentices can share their skill. Grandparents can teach their grandchildren. Parents can give gifts of beading or tanning for their children so that they can participate in pow-wows, further strengthening the culture. This saves families money, she says, and it also creates a celebration and a sense of pride.

“Now there’s a real healing and sense of coming into our own,” says O’Keefe. “It is an honor. We can say, ‘This is who I come from and this is what we did, and now we can share it going forward.’”

What makes the Dakota Wicohan programming also important is that it’s available to all. While the organization serves the Upper Sioux, Lower Sioux, and Dakota tribes, it welcomes all residents of the region and works across tribal, state, and political boundaries. Because Dakota Wicohan is not affiliated with the local tribes, inclusivity is a key attribute. “We are inclusive,” says O’Keefe. “We’re here to service, educate and help. Everyone who wants to learn is welcome.”

The Capacity to Grow

Through the First Nations grant, Dakota Wicohan also received technical assistance for both board development and fundraising.

Parfleche is one of the traditional artforms the organization has been able to perpetuate. Here parfleche workshop participants display their finished projects.

Parfleche is one of the traditional artforms the organization has been able to perpetuate. Here parfleche workshop participants display their finished projects.

Dakota Wicohan currently has six board members, and three of whom are among the organization’s founders. Based on this, O’Keefe says the board has recognized the need to formalize the board-recruitment process with a focus on younger members to “pass the torch.” The assistance from First Nations helped facilitate this training, along with project management training, database selection and a fundraising strategy to engage individual donors.

It was a definite need for the organization because operations in the past had involved multiple spreadsheets and fundraising programs that weren’t up to date or integrated across their platforms. And with a small staff and a growing to-do list, proper administration was often pushed to the bottom of priorities.

The training helped formalize processes and create the community outreach survey necessary for the Growing Dakota Artists project, both of which were critical for the success and sustainability of Dakota Wicohan.

O’Keefe says the organization values not only the funding from First Nations, but the wealth of knowledge and the technical know-how. “They don’t just write you a check and say ‘Good luck to you.’ They bring the trainers right to your door and walk you through it.”

Eileen Egan, a partner at Melvin Consulting, was one of those trainers. She says the Dakota Wicohan team members have remarkable stories about resiliency, strength and determination, and through training they were able to amplify those stories.

“They are now working toward implementing intentional efforts to sustain their programs through a strategic fundraising plan,” Egan says. “This will empower them to increase resources in the coming years resulting in having a greater impact in their community.”

Positioned to Meet Challenges

Building on the art programs and strengthening its capacity is helping this small, rural organization meet challenges typical of small nonprofits. Like most, the organization must continually seek funding and call on creativity in staffing its programs and reaching new audiences. Unique to Dakota Wicohan, however, is its position as a local educational organization that serves a Native and non-Native population. O’Keefe says sometimes they find themselves in competition with local tribes for the same grant funding, and sometimes that competition results in Dakota Wicohan offering the same programming to the same audiences.

Youth programming is another focus for Dakota Wicohan. Through the organization’s outreach and education projects, kids come together for Lacrosse Camp.

Youth programming is another focus for Dakota Wicohan. Through the organization’s outreach and education projects, kids come together for Lacrosse Camp.

Still, the organization continues to seek opportunities for collaboration and partnership whenever possible, along with ways to cultivate its programs and keep its approaches new and fresh.

“There’s plenty of work to go around,” says O’Keefe. “And there’s plenty of people who need help.”

For Dakota Wicohan, the goal is to keep building on its progress in preserving Dakota as a living language, sustaining Dakota ways, and continuing to promote art for healing and strength.

“We have to keep in mind our mission and our longevity,” says O’Keefe. “We have to keep doing what we do best, for our artists, for youth, and for our future.”

By Amy Jakober