Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 5, 2001 - Issue 35



Program Aimed at Preserving Indian Languages

St. Paul, MN - In an unusual long-term commitment, a St. Paul foundation has earmarked as much as 30 percent of its grant-making during the next 15 years for preserving American Indian languages.

The $5.6 million program, the largest commitment ever made by the Grotto Foundation, is intended to revitalize the Ojibwe and Dakota languages of Minnesota's American Indians.

"We do not see this as supporting a fad or some romantic notion of old-timeyness," said Margaret Thomas, the foundation's executive director. "Kids who learn their heritage language do better academically."

The foundation said Ojibwe is considered a borderline endangered language by the Endangered Language Fund, an international group that tracks worldwide language losses.

Indian languages once were banned in white-run boarding schools and seen as mainly of interest to older tribal members, although there has been a resurgence of general interest in recent years. The Mille Lacs band opened its Ojibwe Language Immersion Grounds last year near Rutledge, Minn.

Retired Ramsey County Attorney William B. Randall, Grotto's longtime president, said the foundation's language program has been a year in the making and is "an entirely new concept on our part."

If it shows signs of success, it will run for as long as 15 years because "we couldn't figure out how to do it in a smaller scale," he said.

Randall said the program reflects the interests of Grotto's founder, the late Louis W. Hill Jr., grandson of railroad builder James J. Hill.

Hill Jr., who died at age 92 in 1995, was a state representative from St. Paul who developed the community of North Oaks. He was "adopted" by the Blackfeet Nation and given an Indian name in 1914, and Randall said he maintained a lifelong sympathy for Indian causes. He began the foundation in 1964.

The foundation says that its mission is to pursue "a distinctive approach to meeting large social problems on a human scale."

Randall said two or three organizations have shown interest in working with Grotto to preserve Indian languages, and the foundation hopes for additional interest.

The idea of the program is not to have all tribal members speaking the language, he said, but to preserve a portion of Indian culture "and have some portion of their society accept it and use it."

"It's taken 200 years for Ojibwe and Dakota languages to erode to the point of becoming endangered," he said. "To restore these languages to everyday use will not happen overnight."

The Grotto Foundation


Minnesota Indian Affairs Council




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