Two decades ago, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in east-central Minnesota had 145 fluent speakers of the Ojibwe language.
By 2019, that number had dwindled to just 25. Then, COVID-19 took a deadly toll. Today, there are only about 20.
“That's incredibly devastating,” said Baabiitaw Boyd, who is senior advisor to an effort by the Mille Lacs Band to revitalize the language of the Ojibwe, or Anishinaabe.
The reality that those skills and knowledge were in danger of being lost has brought a new sense of urgency to the band’s ongoing efforts to preserve the Ojibwe language, and pass it on to future generations.
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While serving as an apprentice to fluent native speakers, Boyd said she learned that many elders were worried that younger generations growing up speaking English were missing out on important aspects of their culture and identity.
"A lot of our understanding of the natural world and how we interact with one another is embedded in the language and how we talk about something,” Boyd said.
For example, while some languages assign a gender to different nouns, Ojibwe differentiates between what is alive, and what is not. Trees are animate. So are feathers, drums and snow.
"A deeper respect is grown when you have a good grasp of the language because you're starting to see things and feel and understand things on a deeper level of their existence,” Boyd said.
With that in mind, the Mille Lacs Band launched an effort to bolster the teaching of Ojibwe and provide more resources for learning the language.
That included working with the Minnesota Historical Society Press to publish several monolingual books exclusively in the Ojibwe language. They capture stories told by elders and illustrated by local artists.
Anton Treuer, an Ojibwe professor at Bemidji State University who's been working for decades to preserve the Ojibwe language, served as editor for the book project.
"The Ojibwe language embodies the unique worldview of Ojibwe people,” Treuer said. "It's one of the things that defines us and distinguishes us from the rest of the world."
With most fluent speakers in their 70s or older, Treuer said, the transfer of the Ojibwe language from generation to generation has been interrupted, and the window of opportunity for the Mille Lacs Band's fluent speakers to share their knowledge is closing.
"So I said, ‘Why don't you set them up to teach people our language for hundreds of years to come?’” Treuer said.
The Mille Lacs Band partnered with the language software company Rosetta Stone to develop a series of Ojibwe courses accessible by computer or smartphone.
The interactive lessons include videos, illustrations and speech recognition technology that compares a student's pronunciation to native speakers.
The program can be used by teachers in a school classroom, or by adults who want to learn on their own, no matter what their level of experience is.
"We really want to provide access to anyone, anywhere, who wants to learn the language,” said Alexandra Loginov, Ojibwe curriculum development lead for Rosetta Stone.
Loginov said the program was a collaborative effort with the Mille Lacs Band. Rosetta Stone staffers traveled to Minnesota, and willing band members helped make the lessons and record videos in their local dialect.
"A lot of people are very excited to have this opportunity to put their knowledge out there and get it into the hands of so many people down the line, who will have it for years to come,” she said.
The Mille Lacs project marks the first time that Rosetta Stone has partnered with a Minnesota community to help preserve an endangered language, Loginov said. But it’s worked with about 10 communities in other states.
"We're kind of in a race against time to record their knowledge and capture what they know about culture as well as language, and make that available to a lot of people in different ways,” she said.
Treuer said he understands why there might have been some initial skepticism of the project, given the long history of outsiders taking advantage of Native people.
"Some people would naturally be distrustful,” he said. “Like, how come a corporation is going to be doing something with our language, and then they're going to be holding it hostage and selling it to the world?”
But Treuer said the Mille Lacs Band will own the copyright and licensing rights. The program will be free to all band members and their descendants. Non-band members will have access to the courses for a $100 fee, with proceeds going to the band.
Treuer stressed that the technology doesn't take the place of Ojibwe speakers sharing their knowledge from person to person.
"It is not a silver bullet that will save the language,” he said. “It is not a replacement for a fluent speaker. It's just another tool in the toolbox."
The first Rosetta Stone course launched this month for band members. In March, the program will be available for a fee to anyone interested in learning Ojibwe.
Learning the Ojibwe language isn't just a novelty or an extracurricular activity, Boyd said. Rather, it helps provide a sense of identity and self awareness that will help people succeed in the workforce and in life, she said.
"Because when somebody speaks Ojibwe, they will never question who they are,” Boyd said. “They will never have to question whether they're Anishinaabe or not. This is their language. This is how they see the world. This is how they understand themselves.”