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Keweenaw community seeks to save Ojibwe language

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BARAGA, Mich. (AP) - With few living native speakers left, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, like many American Indian groups across the country, is launching an initiative to preserve ''the first people's language.''

The reservation in Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula is one of those belonging to the Ojibwa tribe, whose native language is Ojibwe.

Members say the language is an essential aspect of their culture.

''Language is communication, but also it tells who you are,'' said Earl Otchingwanigan, professor emeritus of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University in Minnesota. ''Within the language itself, there is history and culture built into it.''

''Other cultures around the world ... have brought their languages back from the brink of extinction, such as the Maori in the South Seas,'' he said. ''The Jewish people in Israel have brought their language back, so it can be done.''

A $109,708 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is financing a study of the language's level of use.

On Jan. 22, the Keweenaw community sent out 1,200 questionnaires to members, with questions including, ''Where do you use the Ojibwe language?'' ''Do you feel comfortable using the Ojibwe language?'' and ''If you had the opportunity to participate in language instruction, what fluency level would you hope to attain?''

''Ojibwe is spoken all across the Great Lakes, but there are many different dialects,'' project director Jesse Luttenton told The Daily Mining Gazette of Houghton. ''We want to preserve and revitalize the language as it is specific to the Keweenaw Bay.''