Scrabble could help keep the Dakota language alive
The Orange County Register
Apr. 12, 2006

Tom Berg

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 it.

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 heart level."

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 than Es.

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.