When I was 12, I decided I wanted to try to learn some of each of my heritage languages, perhaps even become fluent. I studied French and Irish Gaelic in high school, and Greek for two years after I graduated from college. I am not fluent in any of those. My true passion lay in Ojibwemowin (the Ojibwe language), but my resources were limited and I was not in an area with Ojibwe classes at the time.
I began attempting to learn Ojibwemowin on my own in 2015. Two years later, after I took a class, I was hooked. In 2018, I decided to immerse myself in the formal study of Ojibwemowin at the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College in Michigan. To do this, I had to commute 2.5 hours each way and stay 2 nights a week at my aunt’s home near the college. This felt like something I was being led to do, so I followed the passion.
I focused on little else, since I knew that language acquisition requires hours of focused study per week to be successful.
I felt a certain familiarity and ease with the language. It did not feel like I was learning something new. It felt like remembering something I had always known.
That did not mean it came easily — only that it felt more natural than any of the other languages I had studied.
I began transcribing videos of first- language speakers conversing as part of a school grant. After completing Ojibwe 4 in my second year, Lead for America asked if I was interested in working on language revitalization for White Earth in northwestern Minnesota. In August 2020, I moved from Michigan. I have been working with the language and White Earth community since. I love it. I hope to one day hear our language spoken in this area with the same frequency as English.
A Canadian study published in 2007 explored why Indigenous youth suicide rates varied substantially from one community to another. The results found that language had more predictive power than six other cultural continuity factors. Youth suicide rates effectively dropped to zero in those few communities in which at least half the band members reported a conversational knowledge of their own “Native” language.
While White Earth is the largest tribal community in Minnesota, it has the fewest Ojibwe speakers. A survey in 2000 found there were only 16 second-language speakers left and no first-language speakers.
My work centers around creating sustainable programs for learning and language exposure. This includes immersive lunches at the White Earth Tribal and Community College, northwest of Park Rapids; collaborating on the development of an Ojibwe certificate program to create language-proficient teachers; and working with Head Start to bring our language into classrooms.
Language ties us to our culture. It carries ancient wisdom and knowledge about how we view the world and our relationship with the earth and all things in it. By reconnecting our people to the language, I believe the benefits will touch us holistically, including healing generational trauma.
The translation of Anishinaabe — the word we use to refer to ourselves in our language instead of “Ojibwe” or “Chippewa” — means “the Good People” or simply “the People.” A deeper look, however, tells us that it means: “The ones who are humbled before Creation/Creator.”
Many nuances of the Anishinaabe language support the concept that we are fully dependent on every other living thing for our survival. We need plants and animals for food, clothing, shelter. We cannot exist without our brothers and sisters of creation. Our language gives “personhood” or “beingness” to other living things that the English language designates as mere objects. As author Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it: “In some Native languages, the term for plants translates to ‘those who take care of us.’ ”
When you view the world through the lens of relationship — which is the lens of our Indigenous language and its memory of our ways of being and knowing — it is difficult to bring harm to the environment. When the earth is honored as “mother” and cedar as “grandmother,” when other animals and plants are seen as beings with spirits, with a sacred purpose and as our siblings, how could we treat the earth and everything in it with anything but respect?
When these beings are viewed as objects and commodities, on the other hand, there is nothing to buffer greed.
My family is originally from Zimbabwe but immigrated to Nebraska when I was young. This sparked my passion for international relations and led to my decision to pursue global studies in college. I added two minors — in economics, and community and regional planning — to learn skills for working in communities on a micro level. I did a service- learning experience in South Africa where I tutored students.
During a semester-long project, I helped a Nebraska village recover after March 2019 floods that affected several communities. A mix of classmates and a local consulting group came together to assess the damage and collaborate on revitalizing the community. I saw the strength and passion that community members had for each other and their town, which was inspiration for what I am doing now in Hibbing.
Lack of accessible, affordable child care and family services hold so many people back from their potential in rural communities. When I arrived in Hibbing, I conducted a listening tour with stakeholders in the community to learn more about local challenges and to become familiar with existing resources.
The pandemic has put a spotlight on the child care industry. A survey by Duluth-based Northspan Group in fall 2020 found that 39 percent of respondents said one parent left the workforce as a result of not being able to find child care; 86 of those responses were from the Hibbing and Chisholm communities.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, low income families spend almost one- third of their income on child care; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates child care is affordable if it costs families no more than 7 percent of income.
Access to child care is difficult in communities that are spread out, which is the case in Greater Minnesota. Child care workers on average earn less than $27,000 annually, according to a 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Finding quality care can be a struggle.
My work is focused on two questions: how can families be helped with more accessible services, and how does that stimulate local industries?
I am researching ways stakeholders — people in the school system, community leaders, and other major businesses — could invest in the child care sector to increase the number of quality educators in early childhood.
I recently attended a webinar by the Council for Professional Recognition that discussed how high schools could include Child Development Associate classes in their curriculum to streamline credentialed professionals into the workforce. This kind of program would make it easier for students to enter the job market, and it could increase the number of quality early childhood educators. Although this is in its early stages, there have been similar initiatives by local schools that I hope can be replicated in the future.
After I have collected case studies ranging from high school programs to cross-sector collaboration that supports the child care industry, and researched strategies from government reports and policy research organizations, I plan to reconvene with stakeholders to implement these scenarios at a local level.