A group of middle school students sit still in class at the Minisinaakwaang Leadership Academy, about 70 miles west of Duluth. Their eyes are glued to the project they're working on, they're making earrings out of porcupine quills. Their teacher, Winnie LaPrairie, points out a special hair from the rodent.
"See, now this is a guard hair right here. See that?" says LaPrairie. "A guard hair that was on the porcupine."
This class is where students learn the Ojibwe language and cultural traditions. LaPrairie tells them that the guard hair is used to make head ornaments worn by men.
The Minisinaakwaang Leadership Academy is a K-through-12 charter school with about 40 students. Chrissy Howes is director of the nearly two-year-old school. She said people in this small town of East Lake, on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, had wanted their own school for more than two decades. They felt secluded.
"The only option for schooling was the local public school, which many people used for years," Howes said. "There were families that sent their kids over an hour down to Nay Ah Shing."
That's the tribal-run school in Onamia that has been teaching Ojibwe language and culture since 1975. The Mille Lacs Reservation is spread out over three districts, which makes for long commutes to school.
Schools like Nay Ah Shing, Minisinaakwaang and the second Mille Lacs Ojibwe charter school, Pine Grove Leadership Academy, have smaller classes that give students more individual attention. Howes said this is important because Native American students tend to fall through the cracks in regular public schools.
"I think that that's a pretty general thing that, especially we, as Indian parents, see and feel for our kids," Howes said. "Often times, I feel like a regular public school is a fast-paced society and we, as [a] people, generally tend to take our time and learning is a little bit of a different system."
Minisinaakwaang opened in the fall of 2007 with 80 students, but enrollment dropped in half this school year. Howes said that's because of the distance some students have to travel across the far-flung Mille Lacs reservation.
The school educates both Native and non-Native students. Like any other Minnesota public school, its students need to meet No Child Left Behind requirements and state testing standards in order to graduate. They also need to meet Ojibwe cultural standards and in order to do that, the students go to school year-round to follow the four seasons.
The Ojibwe language and culture curriculum has hands-on activities. In the fall, students learn how to harvest wild rice and berry-pick; in the winter, how to clean a deer; in the spring, how to net, spear, and harvest maple sap; in the summer, they'll plant a garden.
On this day, a group of seniors and juniors walk to the woods with Ojibwe language interns who help teach the Ojibwe class. Michaa Aubid is one of the interns.
The students soon will learn how to make objects, such as canoes and baskets, out of birch bark.
"We probably won't peel these ones because we'll save this for the younger kids," Aubid says. "The older kids, we can take out in the community to peel, but we'll probably save some of these for the kindergartners and those kids who can't get out as far into the woods and such."
This curriculum is similar to the one taught at Nay Ah Shing, where second graders review Ojibwe vocabulary words.
Bonita Nayquonabe is an Ojibwe language teacher at the lower school at Nay Ah Shing. She said most students start school with little knowledge of the Ojibwe language and are proficient by high school. But she said whether they stay proficient throughout their lives is a different story.
"The only place kids are getting language is probably here, so it's not in the households," Nayquonabe said.
Naquonabe said a partnership with parents would help preserve the language. Then, kids can retain what they learn even during school breaks.