Immersion program provides new hope for preserving Ojibwe language

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Kids learning
Students of the Niigaane Ojibwe language immersion program enjoy some fun time by playing a hand-clapping game. The students get all of their lessons delivered in the Ojibwe language. The program serves the K-3 grades, but supporters hope to eventually expand to K-12.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

It's pretty amazing when you think about this -- it's been decades since anyone's heard Ojibwe children routinely speaking their native tongue.

Willow Miller
Eight-year-old Willow Miller is a third grader in the Niigaane Ojibwe Language Immersion Program at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. Miller says elders are sometimes amazed that she can talk with them in Ojibwe.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

That's what's happening every day in a K-3 classroom at the tribally-run Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School east of Cass Lake. The rule for teachers and students here is -- no English.

Ojibwe language is not the subject in this classroom. It's the vehicle for teaching everything; reading, writing and arithmetic.

The four-year-old language immersion program is called Niigaane, which in Ojibwe means "the ones who lead." That's the way many people view these kids.

There are 16 of them enrolled in the program, ranging from ages five to eight. They're the youngest group of Ojibwe learners on the reservation, and that makes them almost celebrities.

Eight-year-old Willow Miller is a third-grader at the school. Miller's favorite subject is math, and she she loves to learn it in the Ojibwe language.

The Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school
The entrance to the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School east of Cass Lake is marked by this sign and eagle carving. The school is tribally run and administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Miller says sometimes elders approach her. They seem to test her, to see if she can really talk Ojibwe. That happens even when she visits the neighboring Bois Forte reservation.

"Last time in Bois Forte, a guy, he's an Indian, he could talk Ojibwe," said Miller. "He was talking about me because I talked Ojibwe to him."

Niigaane is one of only a few Ojibwe immersion schools in the country. It's operated by the tribe and administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

According to Leslie Harper, director of the program and a student of the language about a decade, the idea for the school grew organically from a group of elders and parents, almost out of a sense of desperation.

"We are really coming close to losing our language, to letting go of it," said Harper, "and that was just too great, too devastating a thought for a few of us to face, you know? We just said we cannot let this happen."

Leslie Harper
Niigaane program director Leslie Harper says immersing young children in the Ojibwe language is the best way for them to learn. She says it also encourages community members to work harder at their own language skills.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

For decades Ojibwe has been viewed as the language of the elders. Most people know a few words, maybe a greeting or a phrase, but that's about it.

A survey in 2000 counted only about 200 people on the Leech Lake reservation who could speak fluently. Today it's half that.

Harper says it's not easy to get your kids enrolled in the program. Parents go through an interview process and are expected to make a big commitment. They're asked to volunteer eight hours a month at the school, and attend their own weekly language classes so they can keep up with their kids.

Harper says she sees the children as seeds. They take what they learn out into the communities and homes.

"I've heard from the parents on our conference nights and in e-mails, 'He comes home and he talks Ojibwe all night long. I don't know what he's saying. Can we go over this in class this week? I don't know what he's saying to me at home.'" said Harper. "So it is inspiring some of the families to get more involved."

"We are really coming close to losing our language... And that was just too great, too devastating a thought for a few of us to face."

The program started with just a kindergarten class. Niigaane has added a grade each year and now has three teachers. One has a Minnesota state teachers license. The other two have alternative licenses.

The hope is to expand into a K-12 schoo, but Leslie Harper realizes things will get increasingly difficult.

She says there are no text book companies where she can order an Ojibwe reading series. There are no science, math or social studies books available in Ojibwe, either. Those things don't exist. That means teachers have to make their own learning materials.

The biggest challenge may be finding qualified teachers -- people who are not only fluent in Ojibwe, but also able to talk about academics and manage a classroom.

"There are a lot of days where we sit back at the end of the day and we go, 'What in the world were we thinking?'" Harper said. "We've got to make all our own materials. We've got to build our own teachers. We can barely even say there's a shallow pool of candidates. You know, we don't even have a puddle. We might have a couple of drops of water on the ground."

There's one more thing. These kids must meet state of Minnesota benchmarks, even though it's tribally run and not a public school.

Adrian Liberty
Adrian Liberty started learning the Ojibwe language about 20 years ago. He's taught the language to pre-schoolers and college students. Liberty is convinced the language immersion method provides the best hope for getting more people fluent in the language.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

This month for the first time, the third graders will have to take a state standardized performance test. Even though they've been taught exclusively in Ojibwe, they'll have to take the test in English.

Teacher Adrian Liberty doesn't think that's fair to the kids, but he thinks they'll do well anyway.

Liberty has been a serious student of the language for about 20 years. He couldn't understand Ojibwe as a child, but when he heard his elders speak the language, he was fascinated by its rhythm.

"I can remember sitting at the table and when they didn't want us to know what they were talking about, they would use Ojibwe," said Liberty, laughing. "I can just remember sitting there and thinking how cool it sounded and I wanted to sound like that."

Liberty helped build the curriculum and classroom setting at Niigaane with two things in mind: balancing those state standards requirements with a strong cultural base.

His goal was to weave an Ojibwe world view into the academics. He asked a lot of questions of his elders in the process.

"What do we think like? You know, where do we fit in the world? What's our purpose?" Liberty said. "I think in the language, in the teachings and in the stories and stuff, those things are answered."

Liberty says he believes lack of self-identity is a big cause of a lot of the social ills on Indian reservations, things like drug and alcohol abuse, violence and academic failure. He thinks reclaiming the language and culture will help fix those problems.

Teachers and kids start each day by offering tobacco to the spirits, a ceremony deeply embedded in Ojibwe culture.

The classroom itself is designed to look like grandma's house. Instead of rows of desks and chairs, there are soft couches and a dining room table, where the kids eat family-style with their teachers.

Liberty says the grandpas and grandmas of the reservation are key to teaching young children their language and identity. There's usually one helping out in the classroom, but on this day the volunteer elder is sick, and there's no one around to fill in.

Liberty says that illustrates the urgency of what they're doing at Niigaane. He realizes that he and the kids he teaches will one day become those elders.

"I know I feel the pressure. Every time there's a funeral, every time I know someone has passed away that was a valuable speaker, you feel it a little bit more, a little bit more all the time," said Liberty. "I don't know that that's fair to these kids, but that's the way life is right now, and we have to get very serious about what it is that we're doing."

Liberty says he's convinced immersion is the easiest way to learn Ojibwe and the best way to preserve it. He points to some examples in other cultures, like the Maoris of New Zealand, native Hawaiians and a few American Indian tribes in the U.S. All have seen success using intense immersion programs to revive endangered languages.

"To me, this is it. This is the way we're going to do it, if we're going to do it," said Liberty. "It's the only way because it's fun. The language is natural. We're not sitting on the outside looking at ourselves, we're inside being us and using our language and it feels so good."

There are other efforts outside the classroom to keep the Ojibwe language alive. An Ojibwe dictionary was published a few years ago.

There's a Sesame Street-style children's program being produced by Ojibwe in Canada and there's now work underway in northern Minnesota to compile the first Ojibwe book of grammar.