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Sunday, 21 August 2005

College Uses Rap Music to Preserve a Language

/UCWE/ - Agency Village, SD - The first rap song ever recorded in the Dakotah language was produced in a joint effort by the Sisseton Wahpeton College and the Association on American Indian Affairs. The rap song, titled “Wicozani Mitawa,” or “My Life,” was recorded at a studio on the Sisseton Wahpeton College campus in Sisseton, SD, on the Lake Traverse Reservation.

College President, Dr. William Harjo Lone Fight, a nationally renowned figure in the field of Native language restoration, hailed the song for its creativity and importance. “For a language to flourish it has to be used. That is the bottom line. This son helps bring Dakota into the 21st century as a living language with relevance to our youth.”

SWC and AAIA are encouraging everyone to make a copy of the CD so the Dakotah language can be heard by as many Dakota youth as possible. “The entire concept behind this project is to create a way to have an entire generation of young people actually hear Dakotah being used,” Director of the Native Language Program for AAIA, Tammy Decoteau, said.

The Dakotah lyrics for the song were first written in English by Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota member Tristan Eastman. The lyrics were then translated into Dakotah and edited by Dakota elders Orsen Bernard, Edwina Bernard, Wayne Eastman, Olivia Eastman, V. June Renville, and Delbert Pumpkinseed. With the translation in hand, Tristan Eastman performed the song in Dakotah to music written by Tim Laughter.

The collaboration between elders and youth resulted in a Dakotah rap song that is the first of its kind, putting the words and feelings of today’s youth into the Dakotah language to create an authentic voice. “Some of the Dakotah words had really deep meaning and when translating we were trying to interpret what that young person [Tristan Eastman] was saying and put a lot of positive thinking in there, but at the same time expressing what he felt,” translator Orsen Bernard said.

The original plan for the Dakotah rap song was to create “simple rap songs for children because the children are listening to whatever it is their parents are listening to and we felt that they would respond well to rap-style songs,” DeCoteau said. But during an informal conversation DeCoteau was having with Eastman, “He mentioned that he wrote rap songs. One of our productions was a CD of popular children’s songs, sung in the Dakotah language so the elders had already had experience in translating songs from English to Dakotah.” The result is a Dakotah rap song that older youth can find a positive cultural identity in.

The Dakotah rap song is on the forefront of creatively keeping endangered languages alive and relevant to young speakers. For a language to survive it must be a powerful medium for new generations of speakers to express themselves in with the confidence that they will be heard. The Dakotah language, in its struggle for survival and relevancy with Dakota youth, is now being used in one of American culture’s most dominant forms of expression, rap music.

Such creative steps act as an invitation for Dakota youth to engage with and learn their traditional language. “If we could reach the young people in one way or another with the words which have such deep meanings, hopefully down the road, they may look those words up,” Bernard said.

There is good reason for Bernard to be hopeful that combining the traditional language of the Dakota people with mainstream culture will work. After 12 year old LaRelle Gill first heard the Dakotah rap song, she said, “This is really cool. I could learn how to speak Dakotah by listening to this song.”

The partnership between the Sisseton Wahpeton College and the AAIA has created several Dakotah language revitalization projects that have taken advantage of modern media to reach Dakota youth, including books, PowerPoint presentations, DVDs, CDs, an animation piece that was nominated for Best Animation at the Native Voices Film Festival, and now a rap song.

AAIA and Sisseton Wahpeton College are encouraging free dissemination of the rap song to anyone who is interested. The CD with liner notes is also available through the SWC bookstore for $5, with 100 percent of the profits going back into future Dakotah language projects like the rap song. The point is not to make a profit, but to save a language, as Decoteau said, “The CDs are created with the message printed clearly on both the CD and the sleeve, to make copies and share them simply in order to allow for as many people as possible to hear the Dakotah language.”


Matthew Leiste

UCW Entertainment Newswire
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