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The Two Grandmas

By Sister Patrice Colletti, SDS

Keyapi. (Kay-YA-pee)

That’s how traditional stories start. It’s not “once upon a time,” but rather, “It is said.”

It places the story in this time, as well as that. After all, time is a human invention, and most indigenous cultures do not see “time” as something arrayed upon a line of the past, the present, the future.

Time is a circle. It is relative, not absolute. So, keyapi, “It is said” is also used to share a delicious bit of gossip. But this story isn’t keyapi in that way. It’s a true story about these two grandmas or kuƞṡi (koon shee), which means grandmother. 

Keyapi … Kuƞṡi Edwina and Kuƞṡi Carole are teachers at our school. Kuƞṡi Edwina is 82, 83, or 84, or maybe 85. She won’t say, but she gets a twinkle in her eyes if you ask her. Kuƞṡi Carole isn’t much younger. They’re two of the 40-something first-language Dakota speakers remaining on our reservation. Kuƞṡi Edwina will tell you she’s really from “west-river,” which means she grew up speaking Lakota, a different dialect from Dakota. She started talking Dakota when she married and moved east-river. “You have to do that, you know, when you love your husband,” she’ll point out, particularly when someone tries to correct her word choice.

The two kuƞṡis are considered “national treasures” because if the Dakota language dies out, the People believe, so too will the spiritual heart of the people stop beating. With COVID, you can imagine how careful we must be with all the kuƞṡi and unkaƞƞa (grandfathers), especially any who still “talk Dakota.”

It’s a real challenge, because when the pandemic came, everyone moved “back home” to grandpa or grandma’s house. But, that’s a different story.

As school started this fall, I was tapped to teach not only third and fourth graders, but also teachers how to use and integrate technology for distance learning. The two kuƞṡis showed up at my doorway right away, standing on the other side of the room, with their masks down around their chins so I could see what they were saying.

Keyapi … I heard you are a good wauƞspekiya (teacher),” said Edwina. 

“And so did I,” agreed Carole.

“So we want you to teach us everything we need to know to teach online — by Friday — because then we have to be on house quarantine for this darn virus thing.”

“And,” added Carole, “we don’t know a thing about computers — well (laughing) except maybe that Facebook.”

So, there I was, siceca wounspewicakiyapi (teaching the children) in the morning. Kunṡi wounspewicakiyapi (teaching the grandmas) in the afternoon. 

Before you know it, they were “zooming” with the best of us. By the time they had to stay off campus, they were ready to “zoom” their Dakota language and culture lessons to all the elementary students. Keyapi, they even zoomed their takoja (grandchildren, great-grands, and great-great-grands), much to everyone’s surprise! 

With all this zooming around, it’s no surprise that the COVID virus hasn’t been able to catch up to them. They even discovered how to make videos using Zoom, so they can record their lessons with the children for future use. 

Can you tell I’m proud of them?

And here’s the other thing: When we Salvatorians said “yes” to coming back to South Dakota and simply living our ministry of service and ministry of presence, we didn’t have specific tasks in mind. We recognized how vital it would be to let things “unfold,” and to make double-triple sure we weren’t unconsciously or unintentionally disempowering people by coming to “fix” things that we perceived as “broken.” That’s a really big temptation for people from the culture that historically, and currently, believes it holds the power, and still wants to “fix the problems” of indigenous people. Including “problems” due to 400 years of occupying their homeland. Haƞ, keyapi.

We surely didn’t come to help save the Dakota language from extinction, even though it’s so clearly a call and a challenge for the Sissetowaƞ- Wahpetowaƞ Oyate (the People’s name for themselves). Yet, here we are, helping grandmas “Zoom” on Chromebooks and iPads in a language with roots more than 20,000 years old. 

Isn’t it a gift to us Salvatorians that we could be in the right place at the right time to be asked and encouraged to empower two grandmas to become Zoom-proficient?

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