Updated: March 20, 4:14 p.m. | Posted: Feb. 27, 4 a.m.
Persia Erdrich’s son had just turned 2 years old when he spoke his first sentence in Ojibwe.
The pair were visiting the Minnesota Zoo as part of a group of babies, toddlers, parents and elders in a program to teach Ojibwe to young children and their parents. Erdrich, whose Ojibwe name is Netaa-niimid, said it happened when her son Patrick Linehan, whose Ojibwe name is Ogimaagaabaw, pointed at a bear in an enclosure.
“Makwa nibaa,” he said. The bear is sleeping.
This was possible for Erdrich’s son because they attend a language nest in Cloquet, Minn., on the Fond du Lac Reservation called Gookonaanig Endaawaad, or “Grandma’s House.” The program started in 2020, and now seven families learn Ojibwe traditions and language from elders who speak it as their first language.
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Grandma’s House is not like a drop-off daycare or an immersion school where only the children learn. Through a grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation and support from other funders, parents get paid to learn alongside and speak with their children in Ojibwe five hours a day, four days a week.
Don Jones, whose Ojibwe name is Niigaanibines, is one of the elders who teaches at Grandma’s House. He said the language nest got its name because “a lot of young Anishinaabe people always went to Grandma's house for food, company, legends, and stories.”
The word Anishinaabe refers to the Indigenous people of this area of the U.S. and Canada, and Ojibwe is a specific subgroup, so some use the terms interchangeably.
Jones has been learning and speaking Ojibwe since he was born. It is unlikely that any adults who speak Ojibwe as their first language remain in the Fond du Lac Reservation, but it is not definitively known. All of the elders sharing their teachings at Grandma’s House travel to Cloquet from places like Ontario, Manitoba, and Wisconsin.
For instance, Jones travels from Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation, which is on the Canadian side of the border from International Falls, Minn.
“Even in our community on the Canadian side, I grew up in that kind of environment. I appreciate the love and kindness from grandmothers and what they provide: love and caring and sharing. So, that was the whole idea about recreating that kind of concept here.”
The beginning of language revitalization
Grandma’s House wouldn’t have been possible a little more than a generation ago.
In the late 1800s, the U.S. government created a policy that banned speaking or teaching in any language other than English in schools. This was standard practice in Native American boarding schools. For generations, Native children were taken from their families, banned from speaking their native language or engaging in traditional religious practices, and often abused if they didn’t comply.
Hundreds of Native children died in these schools. Counts vary, but there were at least a dozen of these boarding schools in Minnesota.
“It wasn’t until the passing of the Native American Languages Act in 1990 that we saw a federal policy that allowed the use of Native American languages in the classroom,” said Deidre Whiteman, director of research and education for the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which is based in Minneapolis.
“When Indigenous communities lose their languages, they also lose thousands of years of stories and traditions,” Whiteman stated. “Everything we know about ourselves as Native peoples is found in our languages — our songs, our stories, and our ceremonies. Our connection to our lands is rooted in languages. It’s what makes us who we are.”
A study led by The Australian National University and published in 2021 found that, worldwide, “The loss of language diversity results from a complex network of factors, particularly those associated with colonization, globalization, and social and economic change.”
Ojibwe is endangered and there were only an estimated 678 first-language Ojibwe speakers in Minnesota in 2009, according to the University of Minnesota.
The “language nest” model of language revitalization began in New Zealand, where a movement to revive the Maori language began in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the government there began funding language nests, or Te Kōhanga Reo, which brought elders together with children and their parents.
The program flourished there. By 1991, a year after the U.S. lifted the ban on learning Native languages, New Zealand had “630 kōhanga reo operating, with a total enrollment of 10,451 children and about 4,000 staff”, according to an essay from Maori scholars Tania Rei and Carra Hamon.
Language nest models now exist worldwide, but only a few exist in the United States. Commonly cited reasons include a lack of fluent speakers, financial challenges, and loss of language diversity.
Likely the oldest equivalent to a language nest in the U.S. is 'Aha Pūnana Leo, meaning “nest of voices,” in Hawaii.
There also is a history of language revitalization programs including language nests in Minnesota. Eni-gikendaasoyang, or the Enweyang Ojibwe Language Nest, was a preschool lab classroom that taught Native and non-native children common core subjects in Ojibwe at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. The school ran from 2009 to 2014.
Minnesota is also part of several Native ancestral homelands, such as Lakota and Dakota people. In South Dakota they have a Lakota Language & Education Initiative, and in North Dakota the Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi Lakota Language Immersion Nest. And last fall in 2022, the University of Minnesota began a Dakota language nest program.
Other language nests are still forming across the U.S. today: Saad K’idilyé Diné Language Nest (SKDLN) opened in August in New Mexico.
How Grandma’s House came to be
The seed that bloomed into Grandma’s House started more than a dozen years ago. A small group, most who met in the University of Minnesota’s Ojibwe Language Program including Erdrich, developed an idea for an immersive program where adults could learn from Ojibwe elders.
The group worked with the Fond du Lac Tribal College to create Ojibwemotaadidaa, an Ojibwe Immersion academy for adults. It was there that discussions began about making an Ojibwe language nest for the adults at the academy who were planning or starting to have children, including Erdrich.
“I was actually living in Wisconsin but I moved back here because I wanted him to learn how to speak Ojibwe,” she said about her son.
Many minds went into the creation of Grandma’s House. Families from Leech Lake, Bad River, and even Ontario attended these adult language camps where part of the brainstorming of Grandma’s House took place.
When Grandma’s House was developing, the group did a pipe ceremony. Jones said they requested “guidance from the Spirits, for the program to be looked after and funded, and to provide spiritual guidance in the way this unfolds in the future.” Putting his faith in that ceremony, Jones stated Grandma’s House would “come about the way it should come about.”
“It was prophesized that a new generation would come in and bring back what was lost. And I really feel like the people in the language revitalization movement are that generation,” said Nicole Kneeland, who is the grant manager for Grandma’s House and helped secure the grant that financially supports parents in the program. Her Ojibwe name is Gaagigegiizhigookwe.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation got involved because it is “committed to increasing access to early childhood care and education in a way that advances racial and health equity. The efforts of Fond Du Lac Tribal College and their creation of Grandma’s House is a great example of that intersection,” stated Bukata Hayes, chair of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation board.
Due to distance, some families who helped develop Grandma’s House can’t attend. From elders to parents to Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, to the newest and youngest first-language Ojibwe speakers at Grandma’s House, the program’s foundation is still growing. Erdrich and several others involved in the founding now have children in Grandma’s House.
"Learning Ojibwe in college and pursuing learning the language and teaching the language, I hadn't really thought about babies speaking it as their first language,” Erdrich said.
“It seemed like this impossible thing because of how much work it would be, how hard it would be to have a whole community and other babies to be speaking Ojibwe, but it's happening! And it's amazing because it's the peer language here so the kids are speaking Ojibwe to each other,” she said.
‘Language is healing’
Even though it falls under the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, Grandma’s House is not like other college language programs. Learning a Native language in an academic setting is beneficial for language revitalization, but academic learning does not usually include learning the traditions, heritage or spirit within a Native community.
A regular day at Grandma’s House begins with a snack and casual interaction while the kids, parents, and elder or elders arrive. Then, depending on the season, they head outside for activities. In winter the group will snowshoe along trails or set rabbit snares; other times they will tap trees for syrup and sugar.
A lot of the work is in noticing and identifying when things are changing in nature and telling the kids about it.
For example, now is the season when rabbits are pregnant, so parents and elders teach the kids not to kill animals that carry young. After, everyone heads back inside to eat lunch. Sometimes they teach the little ones to process and eat wild rice, or eat what's harvested from their garden.
Language diversity provides different ways of thinking and listening. Jones described that when he hears stories in Anishinaabe, “the words are very beautiful.” He said he can see a picture developing as other elders talk, as opposed to when he hears something in English and has to listen carefully to see what’s being said.
He said his teaching style at Grandma’s House relies more “on the legends, the stories, and what my grandparents and my parents taught me to speak the language.”
Grandma’s House is set to expand soon. It recently got notice of funding to start an extended program this fall for children ages 3-5 to learn Ojibwe, taught by Erdrich, according to Kneeland.
“We’re working with the Fond du Lac Tribe to find a licensed space. Families that are currently in the program will shift their children into that program which will open up more family spots in our Grandma’s House,” shared Kneeland. It will continue Ojibwe language learning when children leave the language nest.
“There will be applications soon, but we’re still working on it right now. This summer will be a big application period for us because we’re going to go through two programs: Grandma’s House and the new preschool classroom,” she said.
Waking up a sleeping language
Although it’s common to refer to a language no longer commonly spoken as a “dead language,” some people in the language revitalization movement instead refer to them as “asleep.” The idea is that sleeping languages can be awakened through family and community efforts.
Waking up Native languages can also bring intergenerational healing.
“There's a tremendous amount of healing in everything that we do around Grandma's House. Once they get to a certain age, they can pass on that knowledge later on if they're in their 30s and 40s. Then they can share what we passed on to them so it continues, it lives on,” Jones said.
“We all need each other to heal,” Whiteman said. “Our elders are our knowledge keepers and carry the memories of our ancestors. In our communities, elders are revered. When the youth are able to hear stories from elders, they are able to make that connection to who they are.”
Native people learning their language is not only changing families but healing them.
“Language is healing. When you speak your language, you have your Anishinaabe name, and your clan, and can introduce yourself and where you’re from. So we always tell people that the spirit is always listening to us, not just the Great Spirit, but everything has spirit — the trees, the plants, all these are healing,” Jones said.
Whiteman explained that some elders are “hesitant to re-learn their Native languages because of shame and guilt. Many struggle with their identities and feel robbed of that connection to their cultures that they felt they should have had. There were also many families who converted to Christianity and assimilated to survive.”
However, the elders and families at Grandma’s House are motivated to “break the cycle,” Kneeland said.
“We do have situations where elders are hesitant to do this work due to the effects of being at boarding schools. It can be a really lonely trail doing this. We have to build that community and support each other, and now the language line is back in families. We have seven families that will have the language back since the last speaker two to three generations ago. This is changing families,” Kneeland said.
Jones appreciates the lightness that can come with speaking and learning Ojibwe.
“The spiritual language has a lot of humor. There's a lot of humor in our language, stories, directions, and mostly, what we call ‘Gizhewaadiziwin,’ which is love and kindness, that's ingrained in the language,” Jones said.
Erdrich is “fluent enough to keep a conversation but waiting to know enough to tell a good joke in Ojibwe.”
“I can’t believe it’s happening: my little boy is speaking Ojibwe as his first language. The last person to speak it was my great-grandfather. It’s a full circle of healing,” Erdrich said.
Her son is now beginning to dream in Ojibwe. He recently shared with her a dream about a small bird flying high. It was eating, resting, and sleeping.
“It was just this powerful moment because he was talking about his dream in Ojibwe and usually, in my experience, I only hear people speak about their dreams in Ojibwe when we are at ceremonies or there is some special important, maybe sacred, occasion. But, for him, he was speaking because that’s the language he has.”
Correction (Feb. 28, 2023): An earlier version of this story misstated the age of students at Eni-gikendaasoyang. Also, photo captions in an earlier version of this story misstated which language appears on a toy and the age of a child.