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When Del First was growing up on Fort Peck Indian Reservation in the 1960s, everyone in his neighborhood spoke Dakota, a language of the Sioux Nation. Today, hardly anyone does. “I am the youngest fluent speaker left here,” First says.
But he’s laboring to reverse that trend as a Dakota language instructor, teaching at Fort Peck Community College. One student in particular has given him hope: a 19-year-old named Ethan Three Stars.
Three Stars grew up hearing his grandfather use Lakota—which is very similar to Dakota— and had a solid vocabulary in the language after middle school. But he struggled with the grammatical rules and sentence structures, which differ significantly from those in English.
“Then in 2014 I heard about a Dakota summer immersion program Del was starting at Fort Peck’s Language and Culture Center,” Three Stars says. “I signed up right away.” He advanced so quickly that First asked him to become an instructor for the youngest students.
The following spring, First drove Three Stars and two other high school students to a Jeopardy-style Dakota language bowl in Minnesota. Despite receiving the hefty study guide for the competition just two days beforehand, their team placed fourth out of 20. The achievement generated widespread attention throughout Fort Peck—and caused a surge of interest in the language among young people.
First now wants to start his own language bowl at Fort Peck, and has already purchased a set of buzzers for future competitions through funding from WWF. Three Stars, meanwhile, is working for the Language and Culture Department every summer while attending Fort Peck Community College. He plans to transfer to a university—and then return. “I want to bring my knowledge back here and teach Dakota,” he says.
First adds that preserving the language is a way to preserve the Sioux culture it sprang from—a culture that deeply values nature and wildlife, including the buffalo his ancestors once depended on for survival. “We believe that all animals—two-legged, four-legged, everything—are equal,” he explains. “The Dakota language reflects that, too.”