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News & Views of Phillips Since 1976
Sunday May 19th 2024

Backyard Initiative Update Harvesting Learning from the Dakota Language Revitalization Citizen Health Action Team

By Janice Barbee and Madeline Gardner, Cultural Wellness Center

Residents of seven neighborhoods in south Minneapolis (in the area around Allina Health System”'s headquarters) have been implementing their ideas for health improvement for the past year with the support of Allina and the Cultural Wellness Center. The Dakota Language Revitalization Citizen Health Action Team (CHAT) was the first project to be approved by the Community Commission on Health and the members of this CHAT (made up primarily of Dakota community residents) have been going through a reflection or harvesting process to pull out their learning from their experiences and share it with the Commission, with other CHATs, and with the community.

The Dakota Language Revitalization CHAT was formed out of the recognition that the health of a culture is essential to the health of a people and language is how culture and world view are transmitted. The Dakota language is at a crisis point right now; one CHAT member estimates there are only five fluent Dakota speakers left in the state of MN. The vision of the CHAT was that Dakota children learn their language at an early age, and their strategy was to start a day care for young children where they would be immersed in the Dakota language.

The CHAT members learned a lot about the regulations, licensing and challenges of setting up early childhood care facility. A teacher was hired for the immersion program, one of the few Dakota speakers under 40 years old.  Due to the challenges in setting up a licensed day care in a house, the strategy changed to setting up a part-time Dakota language childhood immersion program within an existing day care, with the help of Wicoie Nandigikendon, the CHAT”'s fiscal agent and incubator.  Up to six children attended. CHAT members also hosted a weekly or biweekly moccasin making class for about 50 community members from February to May of 2011.

Besides the challenges around regulations and licensing, the CHAT found it difficult making the program affordable and getting Dakota children into the program. Leadership also emerged as a challenge ”“ people dropped out of the CHAT, tasks were not completed, and the teacher brought in was under the impression he was an employee in a program, not a member of a CHAT. A shift of administration and responsibility occurred from the CHAT to Wicoie over the course of the year, as there was little transfer of information about the CHAT with changes in leadership at Wicoie. People also had different ideas about whether teachers should be Dakota and whether the program should be combined with Ojibwa language immersion.

This reflective process has helped the CHAT members to gain new energy, knowledge, and skills for moving forward and create new strategies for revitalizing the Dakota language. They have learned they want to take smaller steps and offer more kinds of activities to engage families. They want to grow their CHAT membership, have more consistent meetings, and grow the leadership of many so that if one person leaves, the work can go on.

Their learning or “fruits” of the CHAT”'s work has now been presented to the Backyard Initiative”'s Assessment Team, Commission on Health, and to the All-CHAT meeting.  As everyone reflects on what the CHAT has learned, people have identified the “seeds” or learning which can be acted upon or “planted” in the work of the other CHATs and the Commission.

“Fruits” and “Seeds” from the Dakota Language Revitalization CHAT

“Fruit” 1: Historical events and relationships between peoples underlie the challenges of the CHAT. The history and relationship between the Dakota and Ojibwa and between Native American and European American peoples was the context for some of the challenges the Dakota Language CHAT faced.  This context is a factor in 1) the extent of involvement of CWC and Allina staff in the “business” of the CHAT, whether and what kinds of outside support is welcomed or discouraged; 2) how people outside the community interpret the challenges when they may not understand all the nuances of CHAT members”' cultural ways and the ways that history has affected relationships; and 3) the importance of people taking responsibility for themselves, where the learning from mistakes that people make along the way while learning to do their own work is often worth more than reaching the final goal.

“Seeds” to be planted

  1. Choose facilitators/supporters/guides who understand the historical context and respect boundaries. Certain people will be most appropriate based on their culture, age, and relationships in the community.
  2. Educate the community on the historical context if it is not well understood.
  3. Don”'t expect all goals to be achieved.  Value learning from mistakes or missteps.

“Fruit” 2: Communication is crucial to the CHAT”'s progress. This includes communication among the CHAT members, between CHATs and the CWC and Assessment Team, and between the CHAT and its Incubator. The Dakota CHAT is committed to growing their CHAT”'s membership, clarifying leadership roles and offering opportunities for people to take leadership, and communicating the purpose of the CHAT and the principles of the Backyard Initiative to new members and to their incubator/fiscal agent.


  1. Create a process for orienting new members to the CHAT and the Backyard Initiative.
  2. Create more tools for educating incubators/fiscal agents in the Backyard and their responsibilities as incubators of the CHATs, including ways to hold them accountable throughout the year.
  3. Continue to develop ways for how the CHATs communicate with the other CHATs, the Commission, the CWC, and the Evaluation team throughout the year to gather learning and be accountable.
  4. Develop the role of CHAT leaders/facilitators/coordinators in each CHAT whose responsibility might be to communicate with new members, with the Incubator, with the CWC, and with other CHATs.

“Fruit” 3: The scope of a CHAT”'s project has to take into account what is achievable in one year, and will depend on building the number of people doing the work and their knowledge, skills, and leadership. The CHAT members determined that their strategy for revitalizing the Dakota language was too ambitious to accomplish in one year, and had many obstacles that were not known at the outset.


  1. The Commission will give careful consideration to the feasibility of CHATs projects, and support CHATs to plan their projects in small, achievable steps.

Look for the learning from other CHATs in future issues of the Alley.

All Backyard residents are welcome to come to the Backyard Initiative community meetings on the 3rd Thursday of every month at 5 PM at Hope Community, 611 East Franklin Avenue. Call the Cultural Wellness Center for details: 612-721-5745.

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