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MAHS Spanish teacher co-authors Dakota language book

Morris Area teacher Jody Snow co-authored the book "Beginning Dakota" with Nicolette Knudson and Clifford Canku. Photo by Marshall Hoffman, For the Sun Tribune.

If you live in Minnesota, fished on Lake Minnewaska, visited towns like Chokio, Shakopee, Winona, Chaska, Minneota or even Sisseton or Wahpeton in the Dakotas, then you should already be familiar with many Dakota language words. But the average Minnesotan doesn't give much thought to the linguistic history that surrounds them.

Now there's a book that will help guide you through some of the basics of the rich Dakota language. "Beginning Dakota" (Tokaheya Dakota Iapi Kin) was written by Morris Area High School Spanish teacher Jody Snow, along with Nicolette Knudson and Clifford Canku and recently published by Minnesota Historical Society Press. The book includes 24 language and grammar lessons with glossaries.

Snow, who claims some Dakota ancestry, was happy with how the final product looked, a culmination of some 10 years of work. "When compared to what's out there, it's a really good book," she admitted. "It's really comprehensive and laid out in a concrete way."

Snow praised Knudson, a University of Minnesota, Morris graduate who now works for a computer software company in Phoenix, Ariz., for her easy to follow layout design.

This year, Snow is teaching a semester of Dakota language at the high school, something she did last year at UMM. But it was about a decade ago that Snow and Knudson (a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, the Dakota word for "tribe"), met each other in a beginning Dakota language class at UMM taught by Clifford Canku, then an instructor at UMM and an elder of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate.

Knudson suggested that she would like to put together some worksheets for Canku's class, and Snow thought that would be a fun way to spend the summer. They started with a series of worksheets, then produced other teaching materials which would be proofread by Canku and Bill Iron Moccasin. "The whole thing sort of snowballed," said Snow. By the end of that summer, they had a first semester book.

The next summer, the two did the same thing and came up with a book for the second semester of classes. "We self-published for many years," Snow noted.

The purpose of their efforts was to help Canku, a native Dakota speaker who now teaches language and culture at North Dakota State University, put his knowledge on paper so more people could understand it. "The true Dakota tradition is oral teaching," said Snow, who offered that she and Knudson had a hard time learning in oral tradition mode and wanted some written guidance. "We wanted to help people like us learn the language," she said.

It was last summer that high school writing teacher Andrea Pavlicek talked to Snow about sending some query letters out to publishers and helped her with that process. Snow's timing was good, as there was some money in the recently passed stimulus package for the saving of languages, which provided an added incentive for the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Snow did the bulk of the proofreading and editing of the book, a huge job that involved going through four different readings of the book by various people.

If the funding goes through, Snow hopes to put together a teacher manual and a web site with audio files in association with the book, which will be marketed to high schools and colleges.

And how does the Dakota language compare to learning Spanish? "There are quite a few similarities in grammatical structure (with Spanish), the pronunciation is similar, the letter sounds don't change like they do in English," Snow explained. "Also, because Mexico is influenced by many languages, a lot of words in Spanish have an indigenous element to them. Once you study a language and become familiar with grammatical terms and building blocks, you can transfer them."

By studying the language, readers can also learn many things about Dakota history and culture, such as their spiritual relationship to the earth. "Dakota is really literal," said Snow. "The word for 'dog' is 'shunka,' and the word for 'horse' is 'shunka waken' or 'holy dog,' because they thought it was sent from the gods."

There are different words for children of differing birth orders, because there are different expectations for each child. Winona, for example, means "first-born daughter." Chaska means "first-born son."

Oh, and those other places you know? Minnesota means clear or white water, Minnewaska means snow white water, Minnetonka means big water, Minneota means lots of water, Shakopee means six, Chokio means mid-point or middle (from chikayan), Sisseton is the people of the fish villages, and Wahpeton means the people dwelling among the leaves.

"Beginning Dakota" is available on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble Web sites, and through John's Total Entertainment