The Two Grandmas

 Keyapi. (Kay-YA-pee)

That’s how the traditional stories are started. It’s not “once upon a time.” but rather “It is said.”

That 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… this was the past, this is the present, that is 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.

See, there’s these two grandmas…kuƞṡi (koon shee) means grandmother. 

Keyapi… Kuƞṡi Edwina and Kuƞṡi Carole.  They 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 too much younger, either. They’re two of the 40-something first-language Dakota speakers remaining on our reservation. Well, really, Kuƞṡi Edwina will tell you she’s from “west-river,” which means she grew up speaking Lakota, a different dialect from Dakota, but she “had to start talking Dakota because of getting married and moving east-river. You have to do that, you know, when you love your husband,” she’ll point out, particularly when some wise-ass young person tries to correct her word choice.

The two kuƞṡis are considered to be “national treasures” because if the Dakota language dies out, the People believe, so too will the spiritual heart of the people stop beating. So, with COVID and all, you can imagine how careful we must be with all the kuƞṡi and unkaƞƞa (grandfathers), especially any who still “talk Dakota.” That’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 to teach teachers how to use and integrate the technology for distance learning. The two kuƞṡis showed up at my doorway right away, standing clear 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 go 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 afternoons. 

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 instruction to all of the elementary kids. Keyapi- they even zoomed their takoja (grandchildren and great-grands, and even 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 use in the future. 

Can you tell I’m proud of them? ?

And the other thing is this:

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” that occur because of 400 years of occupation of their homeland. Haƞ, keyapi.

We surely didn’t come to help save the Dakota language from extinction, even though that’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 that are 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?