HINCKLEY, MN (WCCO) — The option to learn Ojibwa will now be available to everyone, following the release of a first-of-its-kind language learning program in partnership with Rosetta Stone.
Baabiitaw Boyd, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, has spent years working in language revitalization.
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Despite Boyd’s heritage, the Ojibwe language was not necessarily part of everyday life during his childhood. In 2003, she started learning the language in a college class. From there, she entered a master apprenticeship, learning the language of fluent speakers.
Since then, the number of speakers who self-identify as fluent has dropped dramatically.
“There were 145 identifiable and identifiable speakers [in 2005]”, Boyd said. “Today we are at 20.”
Boyd and a team began looking for a solution to preserve the language, and from there a collaboration was formed.
“We recruited a committee of second-language learners and scholars to come together and discuss the most important strategies or the most important tools that we can create with,” Boyd said. “Rosetta Stone seemed to be the most relevant tool.”
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Thanks to Rosetta Stone’s endangered languages program, Ojibwe – and the dialect of the Thousand Lakes Band – is now free to learn for all natives.
On March 1, a paid program became available to non-Indigenous members.
THE HERITAGE OF A LANGUAGE
“The Ojibwe language is a polysynthetic language, so it’s verb-based,” Boyd said. “Because it’s based on verbs, the way language is structured, you can make changes to the word so you can turn verbs into nouns. And so our language is very descriptive.
More than that, Ojibwe classifies items not by gender, but uses “living” and “non-living” designations.
“You’d be surprised at all the things in our world in our worldview that are alive,” Boyd said. “The snow is alive. The trees are alive. The drums are alive. Raspberries are alive, but strawberries are not. It’s very interesting.”
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More so, the language is closely tied to Ojibwa culture, traditions and heritage.
“We have ceremonies given to us as Anishinaabe from birth, through our lives, until we die,” Boyd said. “With this, we have been given these particular prescribed rituals, songs and speeches, or styles of conversation, which help nurture us and our spirits and connect with our deities.”
The disappearance of the language is linked to the forced attendance of Mille Lacs Band children in government-run boarding schools beginning in the 1800s, where children were prevented from speaking their native language.
“There are generations of this imposed language and social dynamics that are alien to us as Anishinaabe people,” Boyd said. “Ordinary education and the language in which it is taught is the language of commerce, business and government.”
Boyd says that through the language learning program, Mille Lacs band members will be able to reclaim part of their identity.
“We reconstruct and redesign through language. You can build self-esteem, self-confidence, a sense of identity… Without language, it doesn’t happen, and it doesn’t happen very well. And we kind of, we’ve done our best for generations, like functioning in English and practicing western ways of doing things and western society’s expectations, but ultimately our minds yearn for relationships like the Anishinaabe and practices Anishinaabe values,” she says. “Just having a base of language…it just expands your reach so you can see things and experience things on a much deeper level as to whether they need to be defended, protected, supported. When you’re grounded and have a healthy connection to who you are, you’re somehow a little more prepared to deal with life’s challenges.
PRESERVING A CULTURE
Mille Lacs Band Executive Director Melanie Benjamin and Elder Bill Premo are both fluent in Ojibwemowin.
“That’s who we are as Anishinaabe, and I’ve often been told by elders that we were placed on this land as Anishinaabe, and that’s our way of life,” Benjamin said. “I think the greatest gift is the language. Because if you think about language, it contains all knowledge and value system.
Boyd and Premo both say that to understand Ojibwe culture, you have to understand the language.
“Our words are not just words. These are sentences. And every aspect of the word really, if you break it down, means something. That’s how this connection to our ancestors and our connection to the future happens,” Benjamin said. “We are losing people who we didn’t know spoke the language.”
Premo says he sees the Rosetta Stone program as an opportunity to leave a legacy.
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“To help future generations remember how we sounded, how we spoke in ceremonies, and the language we use in those ceremonies,” Premo said. “I always thought it would be something, you know, way more important than myself to leave something behind.”