effort shows promise for preserving a culture and helping kids academically
Nickaboine pulls out a three-ring binder full of pictures and words,
ready to teach the 4-year-olds plopped in front of her a lesson
in their native language.
is this?' she asks, pointing to a photo of a cow.
some prodding, she helps the children sound out the Ojibwe word
where we get our milk from,' Nickaboine tells the children. 'We
get our doodooshaaboo (milk) from a bizhiki.'
students are in a Head Start program run by the Mille Lacs Band
of Ojibwe outside of Onamia, Minn. But lessons like Nickaboine's
increasingly are being repeated across the United States and Canada
from preschool to high school to adult education. The goal is to
keep the Ojibwe language and culture from becoming extinct, a fate
suffered by other aspects of American Indian life.
working. In Minnesota schools, enrollment in Ojibwe classes more
than tripled from 2001 to 2007 from 309 students to 1,150.
And the benefits go beyond keeping the language alive. Immersion
in Ojibwe culture has kept more high-risk students in school, strengthened
their connections with their community and, in some cases, boosted
their test scores.
Treuer, a professor at Bemidji State University who studies the
Ojibwe language and oral tradition, sees the growing interest in
Ojibwe as a powerful tool.
are plagued by many serious problems, and I see this as one of the
most promising ways to combat them," Treuer said.
the 1930s, many children from the Mille Lacs band were sent to government
boarding schools and forbidden to speak Ojibwe. Children who lived
on the reservation went to nearby public schools until the 1970s,
when they staged a walkout in Onamia schools.
1975, the band opened its own school, Nay Ah Shing. Language preservation
has been a core part of the curriculum from the start. Babies as
young as 6 weeks old hear Ojibwe in the day care programs. Fluent
speakers teach infants through 12th-graders every day.
2007, the band opened two charter schools Minisinaakwaang
and Pine Grove leadership academies, which also teach Ojibwe language
Nay Ah Shing, which has 200 students in K-12, classes include traditional
Ojibwe activities such as ricing, netting, trapping and maple sugaring.
tribal leaders feel it's very important to make sure our language
and culture are preserved and infused into daily life," said
Joycelyn Shingobe, education commissioner for the Mille Lacs band.
"We've recognized that we're losing people that are fluent
in the language."
State's Treuer estimated that of the 25,000 to 60,000 Americans
and Canadians who speak Ojibwe, about 90 percent are elders.
say Ojibwe is difficult to learn. Many English letters and sounds
don't exist, and there is a double-vowel system.
also a glottal stop, which is represented by an apostrophe in the
written word. The sound is made from the throat, almost like a hitch
in the voice.
also is no comprehensive Ojibwe grammar book. That's a project Treuer
has worked on for the past 15 years. He has been recording the voices
of elders in tribes across the nation and Canada.
Kingbird has taught students at every level at Nay Ah Shing. He
sees the most progress at younger ages, as research of language
instruction has proved, because kids soak up the language like a
little minds, they're anxious to learn," Kingbird said.
adolescents in high school, Kingbird said, you have to prompt the
curiosity a little more. He makes room for plenty of one-on-one
time, sits down at the students' level and keeps talking with them
Ah Shing Principal Eric North said the school tries to infuse Ojibwe
culture in a variety of subjects.
fall, for instance, students learned about ricing as part of their
science lessons. They went out in canoes, harvested wild rice from
a lake and learned how to process it. In class, they discussed how
the rice grows in the lake, what kind of conditions the rice needs
to grow, parts of the rice plant and how much rice to collect to
make a pound of cooked rice.
try to weave everything together," North said. "They're
just like other kids. But by coming here, they might learn some
things they can't learn anywhere else."
Anthony, 16, travels 45 miles from Brainerd to go to Nay Ah Shing.
The sophomore said he has stronger relationships with the teachers
and likes the smaller class sizes compared with his experience in
Brainerd public schools.
also enjoys the cultural activities the school offers. Brandon is
in the school's drumming class as well as the extracurricular American
Indian Business Leaders and the Knowledge Bowl team, which tests
students' knowledge of American Indian language and history.
makes school much more interesting," he said. "I look
forward to it."
IS THE BEST WAY'
American Indians have felt disconnected from public education.
they feel like they're being whitewashed," said Treuer. "They
feel like they have to worship the other and forget themselves and
where they came from in the process.
kids have an opportunity to learn about their culture and themselves,
they gain this self-esteem that spreads to their academics,"
said the result is that the kids stay in school and are excited
efforts go beyond the reservations. The Mille Lacs band also funds
language and cultural programs in such neighboring school districts
as Onamia, Isle and McGregor that serve sizable populations of American
in St. Paul and Minneapolis, the school districts and charter schools
offer Ojibwe language programs starting at the elementary level.
Paul opened an elementary magnet program for American Indians in
1992 to address dismal test scores, school attendance and graduation
rates, said Kathy Denman-Wilke, the district's supervisor of American
felt if we could offer a school that could also focus on their culture,
they would be more interested and do better in school," she
said. "And they did."
district expanded the program to Battle Creek Junior High and Harding
High School in 1994. The schools offer Ojibwe language courses as
well as classes in American Indian art, music and history.
elementary magnet program teaches Ojibwe phrases and objects. It
also has a Book of the Month program in which elders come in to
read and speak to the children. There are three cultural fairs each
said the St. Paul district would love to offer an immersion program,
in which the students are taught primarily in Ojibwe, but there
aren't enough teachers fluent in the language.
shows that immersion is the best way for students to learn the language,"
Denman-Wilke said. "And if our children are strong in their
native culture and language, they tend to do better in school."
Paul schools received a grant to partner with the Minnesota Humanities
Center to develop a K-12 curriculum for Ojibwe and Dakota and to
create language-proficiency assessments for use across the state.
district and the humanities center also are creating language kits
that include games, DVDs and grammar booklets to encourage families
to speak Ojibwe at home. The kits will be given to families in February.
Oftentimes, Ojibwe parents don't know the language.
Ojibwe, and I don't speak the language," Denman-Wilke said.
"We lost that in my family when my grandmother went to boarding
tribes also are reaching out to adults who want to learn the language.
The Mille Lacs band, for instance, offers an Ojibwe Language Master/Apprentice
Program for adults who want to speak the language.
students and their families can attend language-immersion camps
in the summer, and community members can attend weekly language
roundtables to practice the language.
can teach the language in the school, but when they go home, the
language isn't there," Mille Lacs education commissioner Shingobe
ALL ABOUT RESPECT
teaches a drumming class for high-schoolers at Nay Ah Shing. He
tells the young men that when they sit around the drums, it's all
about respect. The drummers are taking on a big responsibility
they're the messengers, the vehicle for sending spiritual messages.
he was a young man, Kingbird said, he did not want to recognize
the meaning behind drumming and dismissed it as a bunch of men screaming
understood what they were doing deep down inside," Kingbird
said. "I just didn't want to admit it."
grew up in Ponemah, Minn., on the Red Lake reservation, one of the
most traditional American Indian communities in the state. Even
in places like that, Treuer said, only about 10 percent of residents
may be fluent in their native language.
grew up speaking Ojibwe. He said many elders who are fluent were
afraid to speak the language publicly because they were ridiculed.
it's not taboo, and younger members are embracing the language and
changing," Kingbird said. "They're empowering them to
come forward. The respect for elders and the culture is really strong
and really coming back."
can be reached at 651-228-5495.