Mary Ashley is the organizer of “Dakota Sing”. The participants typically meet the third Thursday of every month at St. Peter’s starting at 5:30 p.m. Anyone is welcome.  (Lance Nixon/Capital Journal)

Meets once a month at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Fort Pierre

Red is the color of the Holy Spirit, so it’s fitting that it’s the color of the door to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Fort Pierre.

But recently, for Native Americans who grew up speaking and hearing the Dakota language of the eastern Sioux tribes spoken, St. Peter’s is also a red door back into that crucial part of their culture. It’s at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Fort Pierre that people with connections to the Dakota language are meeting once a month for what organizer Mary Ashley calls “Dakota Sing” and what some call “Dakota Hymn Sing.”

It’s just what it sounds like – a time of singing songs in the Dakota language.

The participants typically meet the third Thursday of every month at St. Peter’s starting at 5:30 p.m. Anyone is welcome. The next Dakota Sing is today, Thursday, March 19. The participants sing until they get tired, entirely in the Dakota language. And then they have soup and bread.

But first they feast on words from their native language.

Familiar, old tunes, and older words

“I think it’s important to be around elders because then you hear how they pronounce Dakota and how they make the intonations. I think it’s true what they say, the easiest way to learn Dakota is to sing it,” says Mary Ashley.

Ashley is an organist who was first encouraged to play, in part, by Vine Deloria Sr. – the father of the famous Native American writer of the same name. Ashley says her father, Vernon Ashley, was a lay reader in the Episcopal Church for about 40 years, so she grew up hearing Dakota spoken.

“My mother did not speak the language, but my father did. I am not fluent in it,” Ashley said.

That’s all the more reason she wants to hear the songs sung in the old words. And she’s elated that of the 13 people who attended last month’s Dakota Sing, some were young.

“It’s good for them to hear the old songs being sung by their elders,” Ashley said.

The tunes, Ashley says, are already familiar.

“We sing ‘Silent Night’ every Christmas and it’s the same tune,” Ashley said. “‘My Faith Looks up to Thee’ is the same melody. ‘Rock of Ages’ is the same melody.”

‘Episcopal Church came to South Dakota with the Dakota people’

Mary Ashley said the gathering is ecumenical, but noted that the Episcopal Church has been entwined with Dakota culture since before South Dakota statehood. When Dakota people were forcibly relocated to the Crow Creek area after the Minnesota uprising of 1862, Ashley said, some were already Episcopals. That’s apparent in the hymn books the participants sing from during the Dakota Sing event.

“Samuel Hinman was a person who did a lot of the translations,” Ashley said. “He came to South Dakota with the Dakota people when they were expelled from Minnesota.”

Episcopal pastors in the area like the idea of preserving those ties.

“Dakota Hymn Sing for me is a wonderful way of keeping connected to the Dakota culture,” says the Rev. Mercy Hobbs of Trinity Episcopal Church in Pierre. “Singing these hymns also makes a deeper connection with our relationship with God than just talking can. One of the elders and priest, The Rev. Webster Two Hawk, shares stories about each hymn that we sing. Lastly, it is a wonderful time of fellowship.”

Ashley said Webster Two Hawk’s contribution is important because he talks about the occasions on which a song might be sung and he offers a translation.

‘Not the philosophy of the language’

At Sinte Gleska University in Mission, South Dakota, Duane Hollow Horn Bear, who teaches the closely related Lakota language, says the event at St. Peter’s is good for the language and participants – provided the participants embrace Christian philosophy.

“It is not the philosophy of the traditional language,” Hollow Horn Bear said.

And, he noted, some would contend that early missionaries who learned the Dakota language and culture were not so much interested in the culture for itself, but as a tool to impart a new philosophy.

 “That’s what the missionaries have used to assimilate our people,” Hollow Horn Bear said.

Nevertheless, he said, it’s positive that Dakota people are practicing the language.

Living language

At the University of South Dakota’s Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, linguist Armik Mirzayan said it’s no simple matter to say how many speakers of Dakota and Lakota there are. He said surveys and anecdotal evidence indicate that Lakota speakers in North Dakota and South Dakota may number about 6,000.

He said that the Ethnologue, the comprehensive reference work that catalogs all the known languages in the world today, puts the number of Dakota speakers at about 18,000 over a far-flung area from Minnesota and eastern Nebraska across the Dakotas and into Montana.

But Mirzayan cautioned that it’s unclear how the Ethnologue came up with those number, and he said counts of those speaking a certain language vary considerably depending on the methods used. For example, authors Harlan LaFontaine and Niel McKay, in a book from 2004 to teach Dakota verbs, wrote that probably about 6,000 people in the region can converse in the Dakota language on some level, Mirzayan said.

“I’m glad to hear about the efforts to keep the language alive by Singing at the Episcopal Church! That’s awesome,” Mirzayan said.

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