COVID-19 delayed the construction and opening of the new community center at the Lower Sioux Indian Community in southwestern Minnesota. But with its doors finally open, those who enter find opportunity and a place of belonging.
Cynthia Zimmer-Robinson walked through what’s called Cansayapi Wicoicage Oti. It means “intergenerational cultural incubator” in the Dakota language. The building exudes Dakota culture from the language in signage to the circle star room for meetings and events.
Zimmer-Robinson works for Dakota Futures, the Community’s economic development office. She is excited about the new building and what it means for the community.
“I think it was always a passion, like way before we were even here” she said. “I think it was just the way they were raised and taught is to learn through each other.”
In the lobby, there’s an art gallery dedicated to the work of local artists. There’s pottery, quilting and even Nike custom-designed shoes.
Right after school, youth come in to attend programs. They can choose from Dakota language, pottery and even sewing regalia.
In the sewing room, an elder is helping young girls sew their first ribbon skirts.
Some youngsters are writing their own songs in the new recording studio. Others are just playing in the hallways. Santana Lablanc, 8, describes what he likes to do.
“Play games with people. Like, when we get here, I just mostly eat and then do a class or something,” he said.
Incubator Administrative Coordinator Taylor McGuire says, importantly for the community, elders, and youth are connecting with each other in the new building.
“The way that I look at it was that there was never a space for both generations, whether it’s separate or together or like previously, we pretty much had the gym,” he said. “So now that we’ve transitioned into a building that has spaces for each of them individually, and then they can do things together.”
Teacher Aliceson Cournoyer is a great example. She leads Dakota language for the children. But she’s also learning how to make her own star quilts from elders.
Each interaction, she says, is important. She wishes she had something like the incubator growing up.
“I feel really good about the work that I’m doing and the work that we’re all doing here. It’s like, bigger than ourselves. And I hope the kids realize that or, like, don’t take it for granted.”
The incubator also encourages arts entrepreneurs to create small businesses, through business training, culture and language classes.
Alexander Jack Lund crafts his own pipes. He says they’ve helped him connect with his Dakota culture. He guides those interested in creating their own pipes by working with pipestone and wood.
“I like the cheerfulness for these people to come in and want to learn something with their culture and practice their art skills,” he said. “Whether it was bowl, whether it’s blanket, beads, you know, it’s whatever they feel like they need to learn to have some connection of their past.”
Some see the incubator sustaining Dakota culture, life and teachings. It also serves as a safe place for people to be fully themselves. For arts coordinator Grace Goldtooth it’s a symbol of resilience.
“Like the fact of the matter is, is that us, as a community, a small population of Dakota people within our region, have created something tremendous, and that’s going to be here for future generations,” she said.
Goldtooth says Dakota tradition is to consider the impact of decisions on the next seven generations. She says this building continues that tradition and legacy.