In the Dakota language, concepts are described based on how a person relates to them. The phrase Mitakuye Oyasin, or “all my relations,” underpins interconnectedness inherent to the Dakota worldview. Oneness, with all forms of life and natural surroundings, permeates Dakota culture. With each year, however, the community loses elders who take with them knowledge, experience, and wisdom so precious to younger generations. Today only five first-language speaking elders remain in Minnesota.
When Dakota Wicohan set out to create their arts program in 2012, supported in part by The McKnight Foundation, they maintained an emphasis on experience as a way of relating, and on the perpetuation of culture. The name they chose – tawokaga – signifies one who makes something beautiful. Tawokaga seeks to use art as a means of reconnecting the community with Dakota values, traditions, and ways of life.
“My mother was blown away at how talented we are. She said, ‘I feel like I can leave you, you’ll be okay, you’ll teach your nieces. We’re going to be good.’” —Beth O’Keefe
Tawokaga originally consisted of a monthly artist’s support circle. What Dakota Wicohan discovered, though, was that artists didn’t want so much to gather and talk. They wanted to gather and make art. In 2014, the organization hosted three arts apprenticeships and sponsored three youth arts projects. Over 30 people of all ages came together to learn, teach, share, and create through several Dakota Wicohan supported initiatives. The apprenticeships engaged three master artists and 22 committed learners through three teams – each group working on a separate art form such as beading and tanning, quilling, and quilting.
Three additional arts groups developed thereafter, engaging over a dozen youth through storytelling, digital photography, and Busy Busy Beads, a youth driven fundraising initiative.
Tawokaga teachers and students embraced the value of connecting with Dakota culture and continuing centuries-old traditions. Apprentice Beth O’Keefe noted, “My mother was blown away at how talented we are. She said, ‘I feel like I can leave you, you’ll be okay, you’ll teach your nieces. We’re going to be good.’” Beth went on to express that, “Seeing young people do this gives me hope. It’s inspiring.”
Serving as a cultural incubator, Dakota Wicohan has helped over 200 community members connect to the Dakota language through their continuum of intergenerational language and lifeways programs since 2012.