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Keith Secola, Karen Drift team up on 'Anishinabemoin'

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NETT LAKE, Minn. - ''Look, mom,'' said the 3-year-old boy, ''there's my boozhoo there!''

The preschooler pointed to the cover of a new compact disc and its photo of Karen Drift, the teacher who frequently visits his Head Start class at the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa in northern Minnesota and greets the children with ''Boozhoo! Hello!''

This story tickles Drift because it reveals her smallest language students' enthusiasm and shows that they remember even the little bit of Anishinabemoin, the Ojibwe language, that she gives them.

The new CD by that name - ''Anishinabemoin'' - is a gift from Drift, award-winning singer/songwriter Keith Secola, and the Bois Forte Band and Akina Records.

The CD combines the voices of Drift and her granddaughter, Larissa, speaking words, phrases and short stories in both the Anishinabe language and in English with the supporting music of Keith Secola, a Bois Forte member who most recently won the Best Folk/Acoustic CD award at the 2006 Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards for his latest work, ''Native Americana,'' and the Artist of the Year award in 2006 from the Native American Music Awards.

When she first started recording the language, Drift used an inexpensive cassette recorder to make tapes for her nephews and kids at the Head Start. ''But [the recordings] weren't any good; there was a lot of static,'' she said. ''I [wished] I could get something bigger and better, but I just shrugged it off, saying, 'That will never happen.'''

Then someone from the tribal government approached her to go to a nearby studio in Mountain Iron to do a language CD. There she and Larissa recorded words in Anishinabe, then in English, then in Anishinabe again.

''It was just flat-out talking, nothing in the background,'' recalled Drift. The result was not satisfying and seemed to be missing something. ''It sat there for a year. I said, 'Ah, I give up on it. Nothing's going to happen so just leave it.' As soon as I said that ... Rose Berens [of the Bois Forte Heritage Center] said, 'Hey, I'm going to get ahold of Keith Secola to see if he can help you.' She got ahold of him that day and he said, 'Maybe with my music, we can make something out of it.'''

With Secola's music, and with his recording expertise as the owner of Akina Records, they did indeed go on to make something of it. Secola, who has performed songs in the Anishinabe language on his own CDs, urged Drift to write some stories and songs. She did that and tried some out on her Head Start children.

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''I did the 'Sleeping Song' and the 'Waking Up Song,''' said Drift. ''Now them little kids up there, they're singing the 'Sleeping Song.'''

Secola was glad to get the call from Berens and from Bois Forte Tribal Chairman Kevin Leecy to help. He was told it was one of the administration's priorities, which further encouraged him.

Layering his music with the common Anishinabe words and phrases seems a natural way to hear and to learn the language, Secola said. ''That way you kind of use the holistic approach to learning, you use both hemispheres of the brain. In the whole process of learning, music was always part of the environment, whether the music was the song a bird was singing in the distance or the song of the wind or the song of fire. This approach seems to me pretty natural.''

At the formal release of the CD earlier this year, Leecy emphasized in his State of the Band address that retention and perhaps a rebirth of the language was a priority.

''Probably the most important investments we are making are the ones in projects that are keeping our Ojibwe language and culture alive. Because without our language and culture, we would cease to be us, the Bois Forte people,'' Leecy said. ''There is no way to overstate the importance of being able to speak in our own language about the things that matter most to us. Some of the most basic things that make us who we are - our connection to the earth and the water, to the seasons and each other - simply cannot be conveyed properly in English.''

For Secola, who hopes to make another CD with Drift and to make other language productions on his own, the special thing about ''Anishinabemoin'' is that it doesn't just preserves some of the words and phrases, to be savored daily by those learning the language; it also, through Drift's voice, preserves the dialect of the Bois Forte people and the Nett Lake area.

''It's definitely from Asabikonezaaga'igun [Nett Lake],'' he said. ''It's kind of a treasure. Certainly both Karen and I know that you're not going to become a fluent speaker by listening to the CD, but people can take that step.''

Now she is the ''boozhoo'' lady, the one who speaks Anishinabe. She speaks whenever she can with the school children; she labels items in her grandchildren's homes with the language, and she finds that encouraging. ''I notice how much and how fast they're learning, and now I'll want to teach them more.''

Many non-Indians are also learning the Indian language. A local Baptist pastor has taken lessons. ''The pastor up there came to my classes, and now he's introducing himself in Indian. All the kids just stare at him with their little mouths open.''

Drift mostly hopes, though, that her own people will embrace their language, to save it and use it.