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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America



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Bands Focus on Preservation




Minnesota's very name comes from a Dakota word meaning "sky-tinted waters." Yet fewer than 30 fully fluent Dakota speakers remain in the state, according to the Dakota Ojibwe Language Revitalization Alliance.

Things are little better for speakers of the Ojibwe language. A 1995 survey of reservations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan found 418 fluent Ojibwemowin speakers, none younger than 45. Most were elders.

Alliance members want the numbers of fluent Dakota and Ojibwemowin speakers to grow.

"We really need our language and culture," alliance member Jennifer Bendickson said. "If children don't know their culture and their language, then they become lost because they are missing that part of themselves."

The Twin Cities-based alliance -- a gathering of elders, fluent Dakota and Ojibwemowin speakers, educators and others from Minnesota's tribes -- was formed last June at the Fond du Lac Reservation. It met Friday with language educators and other interested people from Fond du Lac, Leech Lake and Grand Portage.

"We're going to different communities to find out what is going on... and what we can do to support them," Bendickson said. "Any effort that is being made to preserve language is good, because we need that."

Linguists estimate that 500 years ago, American Indians in the continental U.S. area spoke more than 300 languages. About half survive.

Some were lost when tribes that spoke them were exterminated. Others faded as schools and missionaries worked to quash native languages and cultures.

Despite the oppression, there have always been people interested in preserving Indian languages, said Rosemary Christensen, a Mole Lake Ojibwe who grew up on Bad River. She was involved in the 1995 Ojibwe language survey and teaches American Indian studies at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Today, however, there is more overt interest and action, she said.

"Now that the tribes have money, they are putting their money where their mouth is," Christensen said. "Right now is the heyday of Indian tribes trying various things to become successful in how to teach language to fluency."

"The Mille Lacs Band, for example, has spent an incredible amount on language," she said. "Even before they had a casino, they were spending money to preserve and strengthen their language."

Many Mille Lacs Band youth experience Ojibwe traditions almost daily. At the band's Nay Ah Shing Schools, courses in Ojibwe language, history and culture are part of the curriculum. And in 2000, the band opened the Ojibwe Language and Cultural Awareness Grounds near Rutledge.

Program director Larry Smallwood said it's important to preserve Ojibwemowin because the language and Ojibwe culture are interconnected.

"We need to do our ceremonies in our language, because that's the way it was given to us by the Creator," he said. "And we believe we do not only need it in this world, but also after we leave here and go to the spirit world."

Smallwood has seen a growing interest in Ojibwe language and culture, especially among those in their late teens and early 20s.

"People are starting to get back to their own identity," he said. "Something woke them up and said 'Hey, I'm an Indian person, and I better get back to my own identity,' because for a while they were pretty well lost."

The Mille Lacs band is not the only regional group working to preserve Ojibwemowin. In Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Native American Center has held a language immersion camp each of the past two summers at Red Cliff, and offers another this week. Lac Courte Oreilles sponsors a similar camp.

The Fond du Lac Band also is working to expand its language preservation efforts. It offers regular language instruction at centers in Cloquet, Old Sawyer and Brookston.

"If you put together all those little groups of people, then you have a really large group of people trying to revitalize their language," Bendickson said. "That is very encouraging."

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