Association on American Indian Affairs

Language Preservation

Language Website
For more information on the Language Program, language and game materials, and other resources, please visit the link above

"Language contains generations of wisdom, going back to antiquity. Our languages contain a significant part of the world's knowledge and wisdom. When a language is lost, much of the knowledge that language represents is also lost."

The words of the elders are wise. Tribes across the United States are attempting to revitalize and preserve their languages.

It is well recognized that most Native languages are in danger. Of 155 Native languages spoken in North America today, 135 are endangered. The majority of languages are spoken fluently only by grandparents. In recent years, tribes have become increasingly concerned about the loss of language and have begun developing programs to reverse this trend. 

AAIA’s Dakota Language Preservation project takes place on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation. The reservation is located in Northeast South Dakota and a portion of Southeast North Dakota and is home of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate (“the tribe”). The reservation is home to approximately 4,000 of the tribe’s 10,000 members.

Currently, only elders over the age of 55 speak the Dakota language fluently. Younger members of the tribe may understand phrases, learn Dakota songs and otherwise have some limited knowledge of the language, but none of them are fully fluent speakers. Within a generation, the language will be lost from the community. In a recent survey conducted by AAIA staff, only 9% of the adults surveyed in Sisseton community were fluent speakers, all tribal elders. This is true of all 9 Dakota-speaking communities in the United States, although there a few small bands in Canada where the language is still more widely spoken.

In an article published in our newsletter Indian Affairs, reprinted in Tribal College Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1, Fall 2004, Tammy DeCoteau, the Director of our Native Language Program, discussed from a personal perspective why this is so important. She asked our members to imagine what it would be like if the phrase “I love you” was outlawed. “How would you express that emotion?” she asked. She went on to say

The Dakotah (Sioux) language has within it many, many phrases like, “I love you;” phrases that are also rich with meaning, phrases that are now in danger of disappearing forever, phrases like “mitakuye owasin.” Many people translate “mitakuye owasin” as “all my relatives.” This is correct. But it is so much more than that. To me, it is an acknowledgement of all that has ever been created, in the entire universe, as your relative. To nod your head in acknowledgement to a rock or a blade of grass and to think of that rock or that blade of grass as your brother and to call him “brother.” But, it was not just one phrase of the Dakotah language that was outlawed. It was an attempt to obliterate an entire language. People that I know today, elders I respect, were beaten for speaking.


Language Program PBS Video

Dakota Life, a PBS television program, recently produced a story about our Language Preservation program. For more information on Dakota Life, please visit their website at


Language Program Youtube Videos

The AAIA Native Language Program now offers language videos and are available at

For ordering information, please contact:

Tammy DeCoteau, Director of Language Programs
P.O. Box 509
Agency Village, SD 57262
Phone: 605-698-4400x8302
Fax: 605-698-7067