South Dakota Mesonet incorporates Lakota language into statewide weather network

Dominik Dausch
Farm Forum

Weather is one of the easiest things to chit-chat about. As long as you can see it or feel it, you can talk about it. But in South Dakota, weather is rarely talked about in any language other than American English.

Each South Dakota Mesonet station features a metal antenna equipped with various devices for measuring soil moisture, wind, temperature and other variables, as well as a metal drum for measuring year-round precipitation.

There's one weather station that accommodates a wider audience: South Dakota Mesonet, a South Dakota State University-affiliated weather network that presents a comprehensive spectrum of weather data in both English and Lakota – one of three dialects of O'ceti Sakowin, South Dakota's official indigenous language.

Haŋhépi Maȟpíya, or night skies, is translated from Lakota to English when moused-over on the South Dakota Mesonet website. The site also provides spoken translations of various weather terminology and phrases when clicked.

A Lakȟótiyapi (Lakota language) option located at the bottom of the Mesonet webpage translates most of the information for the 41 mesonet sites across the state. Viewers are able to hover over specific words for an English translation, while clicking on that same Lakota word will play an audio recording voiced by Elyssa Sierra Concha, project coordinator of the Lakota Language Literacy Project K-8 at Red Cloud Indian School.

Nathan Edwards, Mesonet operations manager, told Farm Forum the project – headed by Mesonet research climatologist Dr. Ruben Behnke – has been in works ever since the state legally recognized O'ceti Sakowin as an official indigenous language in July 2019.

According to the Endangered Language Project, Lakota is considered "severely endangered," with only 2,000 first-language Lakota speakers remaining worldwide. Edwards said some non-dominant languages see less use when there's a lack of places – like the Mesonet website – to practice the language.

"We serve South Dakotans, and South Dakota has two languages, so it's important to me that we do it in both," he said. "The most common thing that everyone talks about is the weather, right? If you can get everyone talking about weather, that can be a great boost for people learning it."

Edwards said some tribes have underserved areas with lacking weather data, which can come with financial risks. He cited an instance where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe failed to qualify for federal assistance when a blizzard hit the area in 2012. He said the tribes lacked adequate snow pack data to prove they had been hit by a disastrous weather event.

"When I came on board about 10 years ago, there was already a relationship in place with one of the tribes – the Flandreu Santee – and I wanted to expand that," Edwards said. He added South Dakota Mesonet has also worked with tribal leaders on Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Standing Rock Indian Reservations to bring more weather stations to their most underserved areas.

Some South Dakota Mesonet stations are equipped with cameras, which take photos of the surrounding area every five minutes.

The Mesonet translation project was made possible through a grant from SDSU's Wokini Initiative. When finished, the Mesonet network will comprise over 150 weather data stations across South Dakota.

Dominik Dausch is the agriculture and environment reporter for the Argus Leader and editor of Farm Forum. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @DomDNP and send news tips to ddausch@gannett.com.