Native student at U of M-Morris looks to honor relatives by keeping Dakota language alive

Native student at U of M-Morris looks to honor relatives by keeping Dakota language alive

Pipestone Boarding School debate

A Native student at the University of Minnesota-Morris is working to preserve his tribe’s language and honor ancestors.

Extending a greeting in his native Dakota language is one way Gavin Zempel bridges his past to his future.

“I descend from multiple, successive boarding school survivors, and my grandparents and great-grandparents were not allowed to speak Dakota,” Zempel said.

His grandparents and great-grandparents, faced with no other choice, ended up at the Pipestone Indian Training School in southwest Minnesota, where they were stripped of their language and culture.

“None of my parents spoke Dakota anymore. None of them were fluent by the time they left but they were all fluent when they got there,” Zempel said. “… They lost their ability to speak Dakota.”

One of Zempel’s goals is to keep the language alive for future generations.

“The Dakota language is what makes us Dakota people,” he said. “It’s what gives us our identities and ties us to this land. There are hundreds of Dakota place names in Minnesota. And to lose the language would be to lose that tie.”

His studies brought him to the University of Minnesota-Morris, where 30% of the student body is Native American. It was originally the Morris Industrial School for Indians — another boarding school.

The land is still sacred for Zempel and other students whose ancestors were here.

“It means to know that my ancestors were here,” Zempel said. “Our language developed. Our culture developed. Everything we are as a people developed in tandem with this land. The specific animals that are here. That formed who we are as a people.”

The old dormitory at the Morris Industrial School for Indians, built in 1899, is still standing on campus. It’s something that Zempel and other Native students want to keep.

“My ancestors survived a lot. And when I look back on that I feel mostly pride in the strength that they had,” Zempel said.

The university is asking the Minnesota Legislature for $6 million to upgrade and preserve the building.