Scrabble could help keep the Dakota language alive
The Orange County Register
Apr. 12, 2006
Sure, you can buy Icelandic Scrabble, Croatian Scrabble, even Slovenian Scrabble
- if you look hard enough.
After all, those languages have entire nations of speakers. But who'd want
Scrabble for a dying language of a few hundred speakers? A language where the
simple word for "bat" requires 18 letters?
Tammy DeCoteau, for one. And game-making giant Hasbro, for another. They teamed
up two weeks ago to launch the first Scrabble game in the Sioux Indian language
known as Dakota.
For the record, hupahuwakinhdakena - meaning "the bird that sees its wings when
it's flying," or bat - was not even remotely considered during the tournament.
In fact, the first word played was two letters long. The next added two letters
to the first.
We're talking baby steps. Yet from these humble beginnings, DeCoteau hopes to
save an entire language. Why?
"In language is intertwined the culture," she says.
By that standard, the Dakota culture is in stark danger of extinction. Just
27 people in all of Minnesota, original home of the Dakota Sioux, speak Dakota,
DeCoteau says. About 100 speak it on the Lake Traverse Reservation of South
Dakota where DeCoteau held the recent tournament. When those elders die, the
language could die, too.
That, DeCoteau hopes, is about to change, thanks to the game first called Lexico,
then Criss Cross Words - a game found in one of every three American homes and
whose annual tournament is now televised on ESPN: Scrabble.
Well-known names in Sioux history include Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and even Lt.
Col. George Custer. Less known is that the Sioux were divided among three
tribes: the Dakota, Nakota and Lakota. The Dakota were the first to be pushed
from their homeland by white settlers in the mid-1800s.
When in 1862 they revolted, 38 were hanged in the largest mass execution in U.S.
history. When in 1876 they defeated Custer, his last stand became their own.
Soon the Sioux were confined to even smaller reservations.
Today, the U.S. is home to some 170,000 Sioux or part-Sioux, according to the
U.S. Census. Most are spread out. DeCoteau estimates that 4,000 live on her
reservation. Of those, maybe 600 are elders. And of those, maybe 100 speak the
old tongue. It is, as some say, a generation from extinction.
So how does news from the reservation hit California? Call it motherly pride.
"I'm just proud of her compassion and thoughtfulness," says DeCoteau's mom, Lois
Formes of Fullerton, who is of Danish descent and now remarried. "It's kind of
funny. We're pushing people to learn the Sioux language, yet here we're wishing
people would quit speaking Spanish."
Here's an example of how rare the Dakota language has become: DeCoteau herself,
the director of the Native Language Program for the Association on American
Indian Affairs, cannot speak it fluently.
"If I spoke, I'd sound like child who just learned English," she says. "I'd be
speaking broken Dakota."
Which might explain her strategy.
DeCoteau's effort to save her language didn't start with adults putting down
Scrabble tiles. It started with kids picking up toys.
Three years ago, DeCoteau organized a day-care center for children of American
Indian students at Sisseton-Wahpeton College in Agency Village, S.D. As a
language director, she wanted to immerse the 6-month- to 4-year-olds in their
native language. But she couldn't. For one thing, the children had no books,
music or videos in Dakota. For another, none of her staff members could speak
So she recruited a few tribal elders. One was Orsen Bernard, 70, who lived on
the reservation about 20 miles away.
"This one lady was singing, 'This is the way we pick up our toys,' to a
2-year-old," he says. "I thought, 'I can translate that.' "
From there, the former U.S. Army medic translated "Goldilocks." Then other books
and songs. Then the Pledge of Allegiance.
He's happy to revive the language his parents were punished for speaking at the
turn of the last century.
"It's a long story," he says. "But way back when, in my mother's and dad's age,
they were forbidden to talk the language. They were punished not only for that,
but for their dancing and spiritual stuff. At the time, it was looked at as
savagery - heathen stuff."
Thus began the slow decline of Dakota. Each succeeding generation spoke less and
less, erasing a language that speakers say has an imagery not found in English.
Take the word kiyuspepicasni, which means "indivisible" from the Pledge of
Allegiance. In English it means, "incapable of undergoing division." In Dakota,
it means something you cannot break apart, you cannot even chip it, you cannot
even take apart the pieces.
"The Dakota words are so meaningful," Bernard says. "Even the praying and
everything else is so connected to Mother Earth. I think it grabs you at the
Eventually about 50 tribal members joined DeCoteau's team, writing children's
songs and stories, translating videos, helping to restore the language. Someone
even persuaded the local convenience store to label the candy aisle in Dakota.
"We started thinking, 'Where else can we put the language where it isn't already
at?' " she says. "Someone said, 'Oh, games.' "
Quick strategy lesson: The T-with-a-dot and the P-with-a-dot - you want to grab
these out of your Dakota Scrabble tile bag. They're the equivalent of our
10-point Zs and Qs. Most common? A and K. There are more of these 1-pointers
The Dakota language has no F, L, Q, R or V, but it has six dotted letters and
one N-with-a-tail, resulting in 28 letters, or two more than English.
The game uses 100 tiles, same as traditional Scrabble, but players draw 10 tiles
instead of seven.
When tribal elders gathered in DeCoteau's office last summer, they hoped to
write a 500-word Scrabble Dictionary. They ended up with 2,500 words - a far cry
from the 180,000 in the National Scrabble Association's official word list, but
plenty for a generation that barely knows any.
DeCoteau collected enough money to make 30 games. She distributed these to
schools, who played the first tournament two weeks ago. Now she's trying to make
500 home-edition games. Production costs likely will set the price at
$75 despite her efforts to pitch in. She just ordered metal stamps to practice
punching the letters onto the tiles.
"I can take a hammer and stamp it onto a piece of wood, and see how hard it's
going to be to do," she says. "Then I'll have an idea of what I have to pay
somebody to do it."
She knows. Sometimes it takes a hammer to change things. And sometimes it just
takes a word or two.