Sara Lee | Staff Writer | 01/19/2011
The Ojibwe language has been on its way to extinction since after WWII, but Bemidji State’s Professor of Ojibwe Anton Treuer and Shared Vision, a Bemidji local organization, have high hopes of revitalizing and restoring this fading language.
The two have formulated a plan to achieve their goal through young reader and history books, as well as a newly launched Ojibwe web archive. The online archive is designed with audio and visuals so one can see, hear and then say Ojibwe words.
“I’m one of the resource people who kind of helped [with the site],” said Treuer, “and as far as the design process, I would consider myself a helper, although I did most of the audio and editing.”
“To revitalize it, it’s a little tougher for some indigenous languages where you don’t have, you know, a library of 5,000 books loaded into an advanced reader system at your elementary school,” Treuer continued. “[We do things such as] taping over books like that with Ojibwe words to develop resources and materials…creating an access is really important [and] in as many venues and places as possible.”
The growing hope to restore what’s been lost from Ojibwe culture comes from a long past. “A lot of it had to do with policies designed to assimilate culture and language,” explained Treuer. “There was 100 percent fluency in Ojibwe in WWII, and now we’re down to about not even 10 percent in most of the communities here. Even today, all of the elders and most of the community speak [the language], but most of the younger people don’t….I’ve never met an elder from any culture that doesn’t shake their head and say ‘kids these days.’”
Another goal of teaching Ojibwe is not only to teach words for animals, foods, clothing, etc., but to give terminologies for subjects such as math and social studies.
“You wouldn’t think about doing that in English until you’re forced to learn about it, too,” said Treuer.
Restoring Ojibwe has gone a lot further than publishing books, dictionaries and websites. Immersion schools have been established to help raise the success and graduation percentages in American Indian communities, such as Leech Lake’s Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school.
“Immersion schools are designed not just to teach the language, although that’s one of the primary goals, but also to bridge that achievement gap,” said Treuer. “Teachers only speak to students in Ojibwe until grade five.”
Treuer believes that “one of the defining features to a people is their language and their culture.”
Losing that language brings up prominent topics and questions like what defines an Ojibwe native today, and what is sovereignty? Treuer answered those questions in one of his eight published books, “Ojibwe in Minnesota.”
This book “covers everything from origins and who are the Ojibwe, to gaming and gambling and mascots and treaty rights,” said Treuer.
Treuer explained that “a lot of what is written about the native culture is history and not about what it means to be a native today…most of what is known [historically] is from letters people sent back home describing the natives [instead of actually] engaging native voices.”
In addition to all of these resources, BSU published a journal two times every year, and a few copies can be found.
“All human beings are changing all the time,” indicated Treuer.
But with new resources like the free web archive, Treuer and Shared Vision hope to provide accessible programs and materials for those seeking to preserve the past.