Through the Ojibwe Language, Baabiitaw Boyd Understands Her World and Herself

photo by Sarah Whiting

In January, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe announced their partnership with Rosetta Stone to create an online publicly available Ojibwe language-learning platform. The course is free for all Mille Lacs tribal members and first descendants, and available at a reduced fee for federally recognized tribal members as well as tribal schools. With the dwindling number of Ojibwemowin (Ojibwe language) speakers, especially fluent speakers, revitalizing the language and finding the means to do so is a high priority among “language warriors.” But Anishinaabe language warriors aren’t only working to save the language for the language’s sake.

They know that to learn a language is more than memorizing words and phrases — it is changing our view of and relationship with the world and ourselves, as well as honoring the ancestors that came before us. 

Baabiitaw Boyd is on the team behind the Ojibwe Rosetta Stone project. She talks here about the impact of learning Ojibwemowin on her life, the importance of language revitalization and the role of language in grieving, and hopes for an expansive Ojibwemowin curriculum in Minnesota schools.

Where and how did you learn it, and how have you kept up with Ojibwemowin?

I was not raised in an Ojibwemowin-speaking household. By the time I was 9 years old, the people who spoke fluent Ojibwe in my family had already passed on. There were 11 siblings in my grandparents’ family, and once they hit their early sixties, they began falling ill and passing away. In that time, we had many funerals to plan and prepare for; those funerals were conducted in Ojibwemowin. This sparked a burning curiosity in me. “What are they talking about at ceremony? Who are they talking to? And why am I missing out on this?” I realized that there were things to know in another language about who I was as an Anishinaabe person, beyond what my rural public education was teaching me about myself. 

When I was 18 years old, I attended Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, where I participated in Ojibwe language instruction in a formal classroom setting. It was an awakening. When I took a break from school, I went to work with the Mille Lacs Band as a second-language learner through a master-apprentice program. I spent time with fluent speakers and ceremonial leaders. I was assigned to a master fluent speaker who performed funerals, so much of my professional work in language has been around grieving people. 

From an Ojibwe perspective, there are teachings offered to us through manidoo (an Ojibwe spirit or god) that support us while we are grieving. Understanding those teachings shifted me from where I was as a young student in a rural public school to where I am now as an adult with my role in my community. 

As part of my language acquisition program, I was placed in a classroom with preschool children. For a good deal of time, I was not satisfied with my second-language acquisition, and I was not really satisfied with my ability to teach effectively. We decided to develop an Ojibwe immersion space, which helped with second language acquisition tremendously. Once you remove English from your day-to-day operations, it forces you to try new things no matter how painful it is, and no matter how much you stumble over your words and grammar. I taught that way for six years, and there were fluent speakers available to sit with and inform us of authentic uses of the language. After leaving preschool, children would roll into English-speaking kindergarten [because the curriculum did not progress further], which was frustrating. 

After that, I finished my bachelor’s degree in history and linguistics at St. Scholastica, and I returned to the Mille Lacs Band charged up to move language revitalization forward. 

How did learning Ojibwemowin as an adult impact your worldview?

Ojibwe people have a polytheistic nature; we have spirits and powers that are planted in our communities to support, protect, and show up for us when we are at our lowest. They are knocking things out of our way so we have a clear path; they are working for us all the time. I would not be able to do the things that I do as a mother, a community member, or an educator if I did not have a good understanding of those manidoo, how they work for us, and what the old people tell us about what our relationship with them should be. [When we understand that] everything on this planet is for us, that we have to be stewards of it, that we are part of its ecosystem, we move away from exploitation.

That relationship to the earth is immediately found in language. 

Our language is polysynthetic, meaning it is built upon tiny bits of information, syllables called morphemes. The breakdowns of our language tell us what is animate and what is inanimate, in contrast to a gendered language like German or Spanish. Our language tells us that snow is animate, ice is animate, but water is not; raspberries are animate, but strawberries are not. Our drums and feathers, those are discussed as animate things in the language as well. These representations of life and lifelessness are built into the language, and that gives us perspective on things that deserve consideration for being alive. 

Once you start to grow your relationship with the manidoo, you have an opportunity to talk with them in the language that they gave [the Anishinaabe people]. Praying in English has a different vibration. While praying, you have thoughts that are happening in your mind, the sound that you are making with your voice and your breath. When you are doing that in Ojibwemowin, there is no greater feeling than being able to commune with manidoo in the language that was intended for us. For me, there is a great deal of gratitude in that because not everybody has had their needs met to a point where they have the opportunity to prioritize language acquisition — especially with generational poverty and the disparities that Indigenous people experience.

Learning Ojibwe as a kid, my teacher explained animacy, and that kind of made me go, “Wait, this thing’s alive?” That stuck with me even though I didn’t get the opportunity to learn much more Ojibwe. Do language learners have any common experiences when they are learning? I know that shame is a common feeling. 

Shame is definitely a big part of language learning. There are some emotional breakdowns that happen; in order to pick stuff up, you have to put stuff down, right? And so there is this personal awakening that happens when you start to prioritize language because you start to feed your soul and your Anishinaabe spirit with something that it has been yearning for. All of the misnomers about being Indian, those things melt away as you gain more confidence in your self-identification as an Anishinaabe person. In public school, all I wanted to do was be Indian, but there was nothing there to show me how, right? The amount of time we could spend on being an Ojibwe person at school [was limited], and it wasn’t necessarily strategic language instruction — it was crafts, beads, things like that. 

You also have the overt and covert racism that children experience in public school or the internalized oppression and self-loathing — those things are all maintained and manifested by Western education standards and curriculum and instruction methods that do not reflect the cultural needs of Anishinaabe people. Shame comes from a lack of healthy depictions of Anishinaabe practices in the curriculum and the expectation that children should engage in factory-style learning and an outdated form of education.

When I started working on language acquisition, it was because I was good at it and it made me feel strong. It also came from a deep sense of insecurity that I did not know myself as an Anishinaabe person and that I had to prove to my peers, my mentors, that I could be a “good little Indian,” “good Indian woman.” I know that I have a much healthier expectation of myself as a human and an Anishinaabe woman now than I did 15 years ago, but it is still a daily thing I am working through.

I know Ojibwe people who are dead-set against language revitalization because it contradicts their experiences. I say to them, no one is trying to force feed you anything, but we owe it to the people who sacrificed their lives to promote our healthy Anishinaabe way of being that was given to us by the manidoo. We owe them, and it is our obligation, our right and responsibility, to move Ojibwemowin forward. 

What are your hopes for Ojibwemowin curriculum expansion?

My hope is that across the state of Minnesota, and in any place where there are Ojibwe people, the children in school systems have access to the information that is inherently theirs. I would like for the Ojibwe language to be accessible and offered to anybody who wants to learn it because it is a heritage language of the region and state. We have some beautiful, brilliant minds out here in Ojibwe aki (territory), and they are going to make something brilliant happen in the next year or two with teacher preparedness. I also want to have children build relationships with the natural world with time learning outside in the woods, swamps, lakes, rivers, and streams. This is how we grow citizens of Indian nations with a strong sense of self who respectfully sustain themselves from their land base. 

When we partnered with Rosetta Stone to execute six levels of Ojibwe language, we recognized that there is not one silver-bullet way to learn language; it is a trial and error process. Rosetta Stone is part of the commitment from the Mille Lacs band to make Ojibwemowin accessible, not only to the emerging workforce within the Mille Lacs Band community, but also to the entire state of Minnesota.

The Midwest Indigenous Immersion Network is another example of language revitalization activity. It is a collaboration between immersion programs in the region — Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Canada — and we partner to share K-12 curriculum and professional development tactics. That network got off the ground this year.

Rosetta Stone Program

Midwest Indigenous Immersion Network