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Reclaiming Indigenous Language
Saturday, October 11 2014
 
Written by Deanna Standing Cloud,
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reclaiming indigenous language 1.jpg On the crisp, bright morning of September 5, dozens of South High School students and staff gathered together on the football field. After a few moments of brief chatting and lingering, Robert “Animikii” Horton (Rainy River First Nations), the new coordinator for the All Nations program, picked up a microphone to welcome the group.

He greeted the assembly in the Ojibwe language and asked that they all form a large circle. For the remainder of the event, Native American students enrolled in the All Nations program helped to smudge, sing at the drum and pray together with their tobacco for a good school year.

The All Nations program is a specialized academic option at South High School that was designed specifically for Native students. Thoughtful integration of the Ojibwe culture and language is the foundation for All Nations academic approach.

The passion to revitalize Native languages has ignited an internal fire within a growing number of young adults specifically in Minnesota, where Dakota and Ojibwe are the original languages. On any given day in Minnesota, fresh-faced language warriors rise every morning on a mission to reclaim their languages through education, social media, community gatherings, apprenticeships and ceremonies. By any means necessary, they have devoted their lives to Indigenous language acquisition.

Elizabeth Strong, 34, (Anishinaabe) Coordinator for Language Projects for the Red Lake Economic Development & Planning reflects on the first time she realized she wanted to pursue this work, “I visited an immersion school in Montana. Hearing those young children speaking their own language, learning about their culture with their elders, it really struck a chord with me."

 

From then on, she decided to journey back home to be a part of the movement in Red Lake. A Head Start immersion school was launched this year on the Red Lake reservation as a proactive initiative toward restoring their unique dialect of Ojibwe. The immersion teachers there work closely to gain knowledge from a dream team of brilliant elders from the area. They are focusing on developing curriculum, books, educational materials and lesson plans to support the immersion experience.

These language advocates all agree that there is a deep sense of urgency that intensifies with every passing day as elders carrying priceless wisdom age more and more. Ethan Neerdaels, Dakota Language Society executive director, explained, “With a majority of our speakers being over the age of 65, it is crucial that we focus on the youth and encourage them to be the next generation of speakers.” He encourages anyone wanting to learn more about language, history and culture to take advantage of the opportunity to connect with their elders. “Visit with them, ask them questions, be a good relative.”

Ojibwe Language professor at Bemidji State University, Henry “Ginew Giizhik” Flocken, urges anyone dedicating themselves to learning the language to start with tobacco. This may seem like a fundamental concept, but for many Native people, learning their own language is a very spiritual endeavor. As an emerging elder in his community, the professor explained, “Our language is a sacred gift from the Creator, we need to cherish and nurture that gift.”

The spirit of the language is powerful and a life changing event for students who embrace it as such. Indigenous Linguist, James “Kaagegaabaw” Vukelich (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) shared his experience on his language learning, “The Ojibwe language is the most elegant and sophisticated system I’ve ever studied. It is given me the most fascinating view of life.”

He has worked for Minneapolis Indian Education for over five years, developing Ojibwe language and culture professional development opportunities for Minneapolis Public Schools teachers. Most recently, he has created online programs for middle school students to learn Ojibwe. Vukelich has also helped organize a family language table, which is a collaboration with Dakota linguist Neil McKay at Anishinabe Academy that is open to the community.

This language table also helps participants to explore having a deeper understanding of the Ojibwe and Dakota worldview. He strongly believes that these values behave as a fertile ground for our language to flourish. “Just as manoomin (wild rice) requires a delicate balance within their ecosystem, our language also needs an environment to survive in,” he said. “Living mino-bimaadiziwin with our Grandfather teachings will allow the language to grow.”

A multi-pronged approach to language learning also includes living a certain way. Many language advocates participate in ceremonies, where everything is done only Ojibwe or Dakota. Flocken feels that he sees a positive shift in the past twenty years. “It’s now OK to go to ceremony. It is no longer a taboo. Our people are not afraid to talk about them.” Ceremonies are also a great place to increase the connection of family. “Now ceremonies are multi-generational. Kids see their parents learning and it improves their lives.”

For anyone seriously considering the journey of learning Indigenous languages, there is a strong network of language advocates that will be there with you in this important battle. Professor of Ojibwe at Saint Scholastica in Duluth, Mike “Migizi” Sullivan strongly believes immersion and language usage is the ultimate way to becoming fluent. To his fellow language warriors, he encourages them to “be fearless and constantly reset your goals.”

PHOTO: Robert Horton and James Vukelich connect with Ida Downwin-Bald Eagle at the South All Nationa Ojibwe language tavle to discuss strategies to continue teaching Ojibwe both in the school and at home. (Photo by Breanna Green)

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