Growing up in the Lower Sioux Indian Community, home to the Dakota, Vanessa Goodthunder never imagined herself traveling to Washington, D.C., to discuss the needs of her reservation with government leaders. “My rez doesn’t even have a stoplight,” she jokes.
Nonetheless, Goodthunder’s passion for her Dakota culture and language made her a worthy representative for the Center for Native American Youth. CNAY is a D.C.-based organization that seeks to enhance the overall wellbeing of Native youth through advocacy, policy development and communication.
“There are so many challenges,” Goodthunder says. “We’re number one for diabetes. We’re number one for suicide. We’re number one for alcoholism and alcohol-related deaths. You grow up in it and kind of get use to it, and that’s kind of sad.”
Yet, the 22-year-old refuses to let “the bad statistics” hold her back. She studied history and American Indian studies—Dakota language track—for her bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota and begins the teacher licensing program in June. Her goal is to teach high school social studies and incorporate American Indian history in her curriculum.
When she was younger, she says, “I didn’t learn much about this and I shrank down whenever someone asked me to say something in the language.”
Gaining an appreciation for her culture helped Goodthunder want to affect change in her community.
“I was part of the Sunktanka (Wicayuhapi) horse program, where we learned how to ride and care for horses and learned about values, life ways and language.” She enjoyed learning the Dakota language so much she decided to continue her lessons after the horse program.
When elders in her community began dying, Goodthunder realized their language was leaving with them. She says there are only five first-language speakers left in the state of Minnesota. “That’s when I said, ‘What Can I do?’”
At age 18, Goodthunder decided to dedicate her life to Dakota; and because her mother is from the Navajo nation, Goodthunder is also learning Diné.
While some have called her fluent in Dakota, Goodthunder says not so fast. “I’m conversational in Dakota,” she says. “I speak it and teach it every week back at the Lower Sioux.” She also teaches it to Native and non-Native students at her university where she is a tutor. “I explain ‘Minnesota’ is a Dakota word. The places they go are Dakota words. We were the first people in the area. I love teaching it. I love making it fun. It has so many different descriptions, so much life.”
Goodthunder gained the attention of CNAY last year shortly after she learned about the Gen-I Youth Challenge. Gen I (Generation Indigenous) is an effort, started by the White House Administration in 2014, to remove “the barriers that stand between Native youth and their opportunity to succeed.” The challenge requires youth ages 14-24 to engage other youth in their community to do something positive.
For her part, Goodthunder created her own bingo game, called Cinto, meaning “of course!”
“It was a diabetes bingo event,” Goodthunder says. The goal was to teach diabetes prevention to the community through the game. “We taught the language and culture and did physical activities and games.” She says about 11 youth leaders, ages 12-18, participated.
As a Gen-I ambassador, she then started Daunkotapi, which means We’re all Dakota. “It means we have our language, our rich history. Our history is our roots,” she says about the important of these cultural lessons. “If we don’t know our roots, we can’t grow or continue on to do what we need to do.”
Daunkotapi, which includes youth, tribal leaders, and program staff, connects youth from Minnesota’s four Dakota communities to talk about issues facing them while the adults listen.
Then someone from CNAY heard about Goodthunder’s work and called to learn more about her. Earlier this year, CNAY named Vanessa Goodthunder a Champion for Change.
“They flew me to D.C. and I met other people who were doing similar things. It blew my eyes open,” she exclaims. “I was like ‘Wow, we’re not the only ones.’”
Learning there were kids like her working to improve Indian communities wasn’t the only thing she learned. “I thought things happening in D.C., affect me back at home. That never really connected before. That knowledge is huge,” Goodthunder says. “I came home absolutely inspired.”
She says the Champions got to meet with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “They said to tell us about yourself and then told us to ask them questions because they wanted to support the work we’re all doing.” The group also learned about bills being passed that would affect them back home.
“I wondered why our rez didn’t know about that,” she says. “I think it’s important for us to disseminate that information to other communities.”
Vanessa Goodthunder is consistently looking for ways to reconnect her community with their culture and educate non-Natives about Native American heritage. Her events talk about health and fitness, language and cultural revitalization, the environment, education and resiliency. The last one, she says, is huge as teaching people resiliency can help prevent suicides.
“I’m just trying to revitalize a piece of me. I am trying to heal myself and help heal others from historical trauma,” she says. “We are going to revitalize our language, our culture. We’re going to revitalize our healthy way of living.”