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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 14, 2003 - Issue 89


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Ojibwe Elder Teaches Language

by Molly Miron Bemidji Pioneer

Tree of LifeCASS LAKE -- A little boy answers the door at Leslie Harper's home in Cass Lake with a cheerful "Biindigen!"

The toddler calling visitors to "Come in!" is Leslie's 3-year-old son, Theo Liberty. He is learning Ojibwe as naturally as he is absorbing English.

"He's getting there," Leslie said of Theo's Ojibwe skill. "He understands a lot more than any of us. We have to really encourage him to speak Ojibwe because of all the English around us. His dad (Adrian Liberty) speaks only Ojibwe to him."

Theo and his mother are part of a project in which language apprentices work with masters to bring their language back to younger generations. Leslie, 28, and by osmosis Theo, are apprentices of Josephine Dunn, 70, of Cass Lake, a native Ojibwe speaker.

"I only do it one-on-one," Josephine said. "I don't think I could do it in a class."

Leslie's sister, Laurie Harper, directs the master/apprentice program as part of Anishinaabe Wi Yung (We are Anishinabe people), an Ojibwe project funded in part by a grant from the Minnesota Department of Education. Masters and apprentice families are also working together in Mille Lacs and St. Croix Bands.

The grant provides stipends for both teacher and learner.

"It's a living situation. It's not ‘This is today's lesson,'" Laurie said of the project. "You've baked bread with Josephine. You've done laundry. You've gone shopping."

The learning takes patience and determination, but Laurie described a scene that always reminds her the effort is totally worthwhile. Leslie and Theo were with Laurie in the supermarket when an elderly stranger came to her, almost in tears, saying, "Do you know how long it's been since I heard a young mother speaking to her child like that?"

Josephine said English sometimes comes between her and her apprentices, but they keep working.

"I think anybody can learn," Josephine said.

She recalled the non-Indian owner of a grocery store in Cass Lake who learned to speak Ojibwe with his Indian customers.

Laurie and Leslie said their parents, Dennis and Judy Harper of Cass Lake, heard Ojibwe spoken around the house when they were small children, and probably spoke the language, too. But the knowledge has skipped a generation.

Laurie and Leslie have visited the Piegan Institute, which is a Blackfeet immersion program, and a similar Hawaiian program, Ka Haka Wa O Keelikolani in Hilo. Laurie said she was especially moved to hear Blackfeet students the same age as her own children speaking their language confidently.

"They were not shy. They were very proud of who they are," Laurie said. "That day was very emotional."

Learning a language is more than words: with the process comes an understanding beliefs, culture and life perspectives of the speakers. Laurie began Anishinaabe We Yung by organizing language conferences. She said elders at the conferences told her they had been trying to transmit the language for years, so she decided to stop talking about the concept and do it.

"This is a step in a bigger plan," Laurie said.

"You have to be patient. I know I am," Josephine said.

"I've been the happiest I've ever been in my life working on Ojibwe," Leslie said.

Theo, happily unaware of the experiment he is living, ran to his father who called him in Ojibwe to come put on his makizinan (shoes) to go outside.

"I think that's where we can start, anyway, with the little ones who are just learning," Josephine said. "That's how I learned. I don't know when I started talking English. I suppose when I went to school. I didn't even have an English name on my birth certificate."

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