Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
July 29, 2000 - Issue 15

Center Aims to Preserve, Teach Ojibwe Language
by Kevita Kumar
Star Tribune
artwork by Sam English, Ojibwe
7th Generation Time and A Return to the Circle posters for the Native American Children of Alcoholics Conferences

RUTLEDGE, MINN. -- When he saw a group of people trying to carry out an Ojibwe ceremony even though they couldn't speak the language, Larry Smallwood recognized his calling.

"The creator gave us each an assignment, and mine is to teach language and culture," he said. "The ceremonies are supposed to be done in the language given to us, and that's not happening anymore."

Smallwood, who says he's been a language activist since 1972, estimates that only about 30 percent of the 3,300 Mille Lacs band members are fluent in Ojibwe -- and most of them, like him, are over 50 years old. The gradual dying out of their native tongue has concerned many elders who worry that their culture might disappear with them.

To counter that trend, Smallwood and other band members created the Ojibwe Language Immersion Grounds in Rutledge, Minn., which had its official opening ceremony Tuesday. The learning center, a Mille Lacs band project, is on 70 acres of campgrounds between three districts of Mille Lacs land.

Participants will be able to choose between a three-day beginner's session and a five-day advanced workshop during which they will camp out in wigwams. In the winter, they'll move indoors and sleep in bunks. Smallwood plans to get the lessons for people of all ages underway by August.

"The only way to learn the language is complete immersion. We want people to leave their English over by them trees," Smallwood said, pointing to the entrance of the grounds.

But participants will learn more than greetings and simple sentences -- they'll follow the traditional Ojibwe way of life. Instructors will show them how to prepare food, tell stories, make maple syrup and build lodges.

"If we go fishing down in the creek, it will be in Ojibwe. If we build a fire, it will be in Ojibwe," Smallwood said.

He realizes people won't be fluent in just three to five days, but he hopes they will continue their cultural and language studies when they return home.

Undoing assimilation:

Since the American Indian Movement took off in the 1960s and '70s, there has been a resurgence of cultural identity on Indian reservations. Reviving the language and culture, though, means undoing decades of assimilationist government policies during which cultural and ethnic markers were discouraged.

"Our parents and grandparents went to boarding school, and the language was beaten out of them," Smallwood said. "Those that didn't lose it didn't teach it to their children because they didn't want their children to face the same thing they did."

While times have changed and the Ojibwe language is being taught in reservation schools, many members of the younger generation still are not fluent.

"You can go to school and have Ojibwe language for 20 minutes, three times a week, but that doesn't work when everything else around you is in English," Smallwood said.

Jada Grap, 13, took Ojibwe classes at a reservation school. She knows some words and sentences, but wants to know more.

"When someone says something to me in my language and I don't know what they said, I feel embarrassed," she said. "I think kids my age want to learn the language so they can speak to the elders."

Parents and grandparents who are fluent in Ojibwe and who want to pass the language down to their children have to compete with the influences of American popular culture that have infused reservations and can be hard to resist.

Lee Staples, an elder on the center's overview committee, says returning to a native language after being pressured to stray from it helps a person re-center.

"It is healing to totally embrace your spirit and who you are by speaking your language," Staples said. "It's like coming home."

The elders say the creator gave each ethnic group a language with which to communicate. They say they need their language to get them back to the spirit world. So, they say, their language is their most important tool for survival -- both in this world and in the spirit world.

"Everything we have now is disappearing," said Norman Clark, head of the center's curriculum. "All we have left now is our sound, our voice."

-- For information about the center or to register for classes, call 1-877-654-2934.

Print and Color your own Ojibwe pictures:

Ojibwe Boy

Ojibwe Girl


Ojibwe language guide
Produced by Regina McCombs

Hello!: Boozhoo!   Let's speak Ojibwe: Daga Ojibwemodaa
Boy: Gwiiwizens   Girl: Ikwezens
My father: Nindede   My mother: Nimaamaa
My grandfather: Nimishoomis   My grandmother: Nookomis
Me: Niin   You: Giin
My older brother: Nisayenh   My older sister: Nimise
My younger brother or sister:   Nishiime
I live at White Earth:   Gaa-waabaabiganikaag indaa
I'm from Pine Point. How about you?:   Nezhingwaakokaang nindoonjibaa. Giin dash?
Minneapolis: Gakaabikaang   St. Paul: Ashkibagiziibiing
I am fine: Nimino-ayaa   I'm glad: Niminwendam
Let's play: Odaminodaa   Let's play ball: Bakitejii'igedaa
OK: Ahaw   Yes: Eya'
No: Gaawiin   Please: Daga
How's the weather?: Aaniin ezhi-giizhigak?   It's a nice day: Mino-giizhigad
It's raining: Gimiwan   It's cold: Gisinaa
It's spring:   Ziigwan
Let's dance: Niimidaa   Let's sing: Nagamodaa
I'm going to school:   Gikinoo'amaadii-wigamigong indizhaa
The teacher: Gekinoo'amaaged   1-2-3: Bezhig-niizh-niswi
Let's write: Ozhibii'igedaa   Let's read: Agindaasodaa
Let's go home: Giiwedaa   Let's sleep: Nibaadaa
He or she laughs: Baapi   I laugh: Nimbaap
You laugh: Gibaap   We (you and I) laugh: Gibaapimin
They laugh: Baapiwag      
Food and drink:   Wiisiniwin miinawaa minikwewin
Milk: Doodooshaaboo   Water: Nibi
Pop: Menwaagamig   An apple: Mishiimin
Cookie: Bakwezhigaans   Candy: Ziinzibaakwadoons
Fry bread: Zaasakokwaan   Wild rice: Manoomin
Cat: Gaazhagens   Dog: Animosh
See you later: Gigawaabamin naagaj   Thank you: Mii-gwech



Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.

Canku Ota is a copyright of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the Copyright © 1999 of Paul C. Barry. All Rights Reserved.