By Glen Kirby
For Kevin Tacan, language and culture are inextricably bound. “Our elders pray about wichoichaghe shakowin, which means seven generations,” he says. “It is our responsibility to pass on our culture as true as we can, without altering.”
Brandon University (BU) is an important partner in Tacan’s efforts to keep the Dakota language and culture flourishing. He is an alumnus, a sessional languages instructor in BU’s native studies department, and is in the midst of completing a master’s degree in rural development.
“Next year, I will be doing my thesis on the use of Dakota and my goal is to become a full-time professor,” says Tacan, who grew up on the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation west of Brandon. “Language is the cornerstone of a culture. Without it, we would cease to be a tribal group. Hidden within the language are counselling systems, kinship, history and ceremony. I believe I have a responsibility to help students realize that.”
At an early age, Tacan learned the importance of culture and participation in ceremony from his grandfather and other family members. “I was told that when I leave this world all I will take with me is my being Dakota.”
He first enrolled at BU in 1995 but would not earn his undergraduate degree for another 17 years, instead pursuing what would become a life-changing opportunity. Tacan was asked to apply for the position of Elder in a pilot program started by BU, Assiniboine Community College and the Brandon School Division.
“I was hesitant,” recalls Tacan, who at the time was only 30 years old, “but I did. As you know, it’s difficult to say no to your elders.” He was hired, and in 1998 became a full-time employee when the Brandon School Division assumed responsibility for the elders program.
“While working as an elder and counsellor, I realized that many challenges faced by the Aboriginal students could be traced back to a common point – our missing traditional language. It was then I decided to return to university with the goal of becoming a Dakota language teacher.”
Tacan received a lot of support from BU professors who knew him from the 1990s, and others he had met while working as an elder, encouraging him to return to university. Tacan says Elder Doris Pratt, a long-time Dakota language instructor at BU and residential school survivor who dedicated her life to preserving her language and culture, was especially inspirational.
While continuing to work full-time for the school division, Tacan took night and summer courses, graduating with a B.A. with Honours in 2012. A year later, he was hired to replace the retiring Pratt as Dakota language instructor at BU. Despite his personal successes, Tacan realizes preserving his traditional language is a group effort.
“Saving the language, and the Dakota culture, is not something that I can do, or 10 people can do,” offers Tacan, named Aboriginal Educator of the Month for January by the Education and Advanced Learning Department (Government of Manitoba). “It takes many people from many different ages and experiences understanding how the language and culture interact, working together and using the language in their own work, teaching the language, and educating others.”
In addition to Dakota, Brandon University offers instruction in Ojibway and Michif. For more information, please contact Darrell Racine, Chair of Native Studies, at firstname.lastname@example.org.