Minneapolis school is immersing students in Dakota and Ojibwe

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Bdote Learning Center teacher Binesiikwe Briggs goes over a writing assignment in Ojibwe immersion class with first-grader Jayden inside the school on April 18, 2019. Briggs is a member of the White Earth Nation and Jayden is a member of the Red Lake Nation. (All photos by Evan Frost/MPR News.)

by Elizabeth Shockman/MPR News

Immersion schools are not uncommon. But immersion schools that attempt to offer two different languages in one building are rare.

Bdote Learning Center, a public charter school in Minneapolis, has been providing immersion instruction to students in both Dakota and Ojibwe for almost five years now.
The school director, Cindy Ward-Thompson said she’s never heard of another grade school in the country attempting to teach two indigenous languages in one school by immersion.

It’s hard for one school to get the immersion experience right in two completely different languages. Ward-Thompson often calls out the wrong greeting in the wrong language to colleagues and students in the hallway. At school events, it’s hard to decide which culture to emphasize when it comes to decisions, like which type of tobacco to use.

In the classrooms, however, teachers work hard to not only teach a language, but to do their best to pass along Dakota and Ojibwe culture.

Binesiikwe Briggs leads her first grade and kindergarten class in an exercise in telling the date in Ojibwe inside Bdote Learning Center in Minneapolis.

On a sunny April morning in the school’s kindergarten and first grade Dakota classroom, teacher Beth Brown pointed at pictures of storm clouds, rain and a yellow sun while gesturing toward the window and speaking clearly in Dakota, trying to get her students to answer her in the same language.

Down the hall, Binesiikwe Briggs gathered her kindergarten and first graders in a circle, and lit a smudge. She waved the fragrant smoke over her head, and students did the same. She had the students repeat words in Ojibwe about clearing away negative feelings at the start of their day.

The idea for the school grew out of meetings of the Phillips Indian Educators group – an association of Native educators in Minneapolis. Director Ward-Thompson said she and her fellow educators were unhappy with the results they were seeing for Native children in Minnesota’s existing schools.

“We have huge amounts of dropout rates and teen pregnancy and suicides and drug abuse. And that isn’t who we are as a people. We’re a strong, resilient people and we don’t like looking at that data,” Ward-Thompson said. “We’ve got so many amazing things within our community. And we wanted to pull our kids out of that kind of a system. It’s just not working for our kids.”

A student at Bdote Learning Center writes in Ojibwe in her name journal at the beginning of the day’s Ojibwe immersion classes in Minneapolis.

Ward-Thompson said she and her community were also worried about seeing their languages disappear. She said Minnesota has only a few hundred first speakers of Ojibwe, meaning people who’ve been speaking that language since childhood. And she said there are only about four first speakers of Dakota living in Minnesota.

“I mean, we are on this point where if we don’t work on saving our languages, they’re gonna be lost,” Ward-Thompson said. “And I’ve heard a lot of people question if you can actually even say that you’re Ojibwe or Dakota if you have no culture and you have no language – or if there’s no language or culture left.”

Ward-Thompson and other teachers at Bdote said their work at the school feels like the most important thing they could be doing for their community.

But the work hasn’t been easy – especially in the first year the school was open. Not only were they dealing with all the difficulties of figuring out how to organize a school, they were trying to find qualified teachers who were fluent in Ojibwe and Dakota. They were also trying to adapt curriculum in a language with much fewer resources than, say, German or Spanish. Many teachers spent the first year trying to write and rewrite textbooks in another language while also teaching.

There are other challenges to teaching Dakota and Ojibwe. Ward-Thompson said the history of the United States forcing Native American children to attend assimilation boarding schools still has an effect on her community today. She said some elders can’t even come to Bdote’s school building because the Catholic rental space they’re in reminds them too much of traumatic boarding school experiences.

“There’s a lot of our older generations, with having come out of boarding schools where basically language and culture was pretty much beaten out of them – and this is not that long ago. I mean these are our children’s grandparents and great-grandparents,” Ward-Thompson said. “The language and the culture are something they consider shameful.”

Then there are the standardized tests and test scores. Ward-Thompson said Bdote students are not testing well in English on state assessments. But she’s neither terribly surprised nor dismayed. She said their scores are on par with those at other local schools that aren’t teaching immersion. And those tests don’t measure all the Dakota and Ojibwe that kids are learning.

Besides, it’s never been Bdote’s goal to be like other Minnesota schools.

“We wanted to find a different way to teach our kids and to kind of assess our kids in their learning, and to make sure that they’re being valued for the things that they are learning that aren’t necessarily fitting into this square peg of Western academics or Western thought,” Ward-Thompson said.

“The fact that our child is able to be a kind neighbor, and that they know how to treat elders, and that they know how to treat their relatives and to be a good citizen, is to me just as important, if not more than that they know some math concept. And I’m not saying we’re not teaching that math concept. I’m just saying that we place an equal importance on that social-emotional learning.”

Keeping the school afloat is still a challenge, but Ward-Thompson said the school is growing. Every single space in the building is full, and there’s a waitlist.

When Ward-Thompson and the other teachers at the school talk about their dreams for the kids at Bdote, they talk about getting them into another facility – one with green space and room to have teepee raisings, a garden, sweats and lacrosse games.

Biidaasigekwe Peterson-Briggs, who teaches Ojibwe to second and third graders at Bdote, said she dreams about watching her students speak with their families and community members in fluent Ojibwe and Dakota.

“What we’re doing here is the most important work, not just for myself or my family. It’s for the community,” Peterson-Briggs said.

“We do it so that everybody’s hearts, their Ojibwe hearts, are awakened. … Their language and everything is lying dormant inside them. And when we give them all these resources in their language, it wakes something up in them. And that’s where we see everybody flourish and we see people improving as just beings.”

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