Ojibwe & Dakota: Protecting Minnesota’s vanishing first languages

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Michelle Goose, left, and Jean O’Brien in front of Scott Hall, which houses the American Indian Studies Dept. at the University of Minnesota.Photo by Sarah Whiting

Growing up on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, Michelle Goose listened to aunts and uncles and her father, who spoke Ojibwe “enough to spark my interest in it.” Today, she has a degree in American Indian Studies with an emphasis on Ojibwe language from the University of Minnesota, and she is a passionate advocate for the revitalization of language. 

“For me,” Goose says, “it’s been a personal journey, trying to find who I am and learn more about myself as an Ojibwe person.” 

She teaches in the U’s language program and has worked with immersion programs from the Wicoie Nandagikendan preschool in Minneapolis to the Fond du Lac Tribal College’s program for adult language learners in Cloquet, Minn. 

Ojibwe and Dakota, Minnesota’s first languages, are endangered. The U’s Department of American Indian Studies estimates that there are 678 first-language Ojibwe speakers and only eight first language Dakota speakers in Minnesota. The UNESCO Atlas of World Languages in Danger classifies the Ojibwe language in the United States as severely endangered, meaning that the language is “spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves.” So few Dakota speakers remain that the UNESCO atlas does not even list it as spoken in the United States, though it is spoken in Canada. 

‘Stolen’ languages

The loss of Minnesota’s first languages was no accident. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the government and churches forced Indian children out of their parents’ homes and into boarding schools. Most schools repressed these students’ culture and language, punishing them for speaking their own languages or practicing religious traditions. 

The founder of one of the first boarding schools, Capt. Richard Pratt, advocated eradication of Indian culture, saying: “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” 

Jean O’Brien, a historian and chair of the U’s Department of American Indian Studies, is an enrolled member of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation. She says language revitalization is crucial because languages “were stolen from us.” Her response to that theft: “Policymakers tried to take the language from us. We refuse to let that happen.” 

Language carries culture

Goose says that a lot of Ojibwe ceremonies can be conducted only in the Ojibwe language and that there are words for things in Ojibwe that do not exist in English. 

O’Brien offers another example, explaining that an important Ojibwe language category is animate vs. inanimate. “The way that operates will mess with your head,” she says. “Certain rocks are animate and certain rocks are inanimate. You have to understand the language as a lens on how culture operates in order to even think about what that might mean.” Besides, she adds, the language “is also just beautiful.” 

To keep Ojibwe alive, children need to learn it as a first language, in the home, and that means parents who speak Ojibwe. After the home, “Immersion schools are essential,” Goose says. “Children being raised with Ojibwe as their first language need a school to go to.” 

More than 200,000 people in the United States and Canada share the Ojibwe language heritage, with nearly a dozen dialects. The Dakota language is specific to Minnesota and Canada, with the related Lakota and Nakota dialects more prevalent in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Iowa.

Immersion programs

The Dakota Ojibwe Language Revitalization Alliance (DOLRA) has advocated strongly for language immersion schools. A core group of seven women organized the first community language camp for 40 children in Minneapolis in 2004, followed by Wicoie Nandagikendan, the preschool Dakota and Ojibwe immersion program.

Last fall, the Bdote Learning Center opened in Minneapolis as a K-3 immersion program. The Anishinabe Academy, a Minneapolis magnet school, focuses on Native American culture and language, as does the American Indian Magnet School in St. Paul. Harding High School in St. Paul and South High in Minneapolis also have Ojibwe language classes. The American Indian Magnet school and Harding teach Lakota, as well. 

“Our big thing in the 1970s was about sovereignty,” O’Brien says, “and for the current generation, it’s about language activism.” She says the U’s American Indian Studies Department is internationally famous for supporting language revitalization work, which is not surprising since it was founded in 1969 as the first such program at the department level in the United States. 

O’Brien points with pride to the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, a searchable, talking online dictionary. It is the largest digital humanities project at the University of Minnesota, developed in partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society. More than a dictionary, it’s actually a virtual museum, with audio, photos and embedded content from the Historical Society’s collections. 

As chair of the department, O’Brien calls herself “a dogged protector of the language programs.” She says everyone in the department agrees that “fighting for the language programs is the most important thing we have to do.” 


Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, ojibwe.lib.umn.edu