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Ojibwe charter school opens on Mille Lacs Reservation

EAST LAKE, Minn. - A school bus pulled up to a large white circus tent on a crisp September morning and dozens of Ojibwe children piled out, scurrying inside for the beginning of school. Gathering near their teachers on the grass-covered floor, the students wriggled and buzzed with excitement as teachers and staff scurried around the outdoor pavilion settling them into quiet groups.

The first day of school is always a thrilling time for students, but in this instance, history is being made: this small Ojibwe settlement has opened its own school for the first time in 72 years.

Ironically, the tent that was erected to serve as temporary school facilities was located four miles away on the grounds of the old tribal village where their ancestors were pushed off nearly a century earlier.

The old village grounds are now controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a bird refuge, and its use by the Ojibwe families is carefully negotiated when they infrequently return for drum ceremonials and visits to their grandparents' graves. Some staff pointed to gravesites in the cemetery nearby where their parents are buried, as they worked with the students on lessons focused on the day's word, minonendamowin (respect).

Director Ricky White organized teachers and students, and then was suddenly pulled away for a meeting at the National Fish and Wildlife Refuge Center to sign the agreement form that approved the use of their old village.

When the Minisinaakwaang villagers were removed, their little one-room school was closed, leaving them with an empty feeling. The old village was situated near the largest wild rice lake in the entire region. Now, nearly a century later, the villagers opened their own school; and because of delays in finishing construction of the new $5 million facility at East Lake, the students were forced to meet in the circus tent.

The Minisinaakwaang Leadership Academy is a new Minnesota charter school. Located on a remote corner of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Reservation, school founders pledged to shape a curriculum that would restore and preserve their Ojibwe language and culture. With the avid support and encouragement of the Mille Lacs Band, the two-year planning process led to the fruition of a 17-year dream at Minisinaakwaang. The 91 enrolled Ojibwe students far exceeded the 65 that had been anticipated by Minisinaakwaang community founders. Some traveled more than 60 miles to be there.

''Academic excellence is the foundation of our leadership academy, and we will emphasize world-class standards,'' noted Dawn Aubid, chair of the school board, ''but someone else has always controlled our lives and now it is time for us to bring back our own Anishinaabe way of life.''

The new K-12 charter school isn't the first American Indian charter school in the state of Minnesota, but it is one of the first to start up with an all-Ojibwe faculty and staff. Additionally, the majority of faculty and staff fluently speak the Ojibwe language and vowed to integrate their language and seven traditional teachings into all facets of the curriculum.

''Our educational vision is to become an Ojibwe immersion school,'' continued Aubid, ''and our old people will look down on us with pride that we didn't allow their way of life die.''

White spoke to the students, first in Ojibwe and then translated into English. His enthusiasm and energy had students, staff and parents chuckling.

''You're making history here at Minisinaakwaang!'' he bellowed to the students as he encouraged them to adapt to their new school uniforms - red knit polo shirts and tan pants/shorts with an eagle emblem.

''You are dressing to come to our leadership academy,'' he continued, then added, ''This is your school and we're not going to let anything stop us from having the best school in the world.''

Mushkoub, an elder and local philosopher, greeted the students in Ojibwe and then translated into English.

''You are family; you are the clans; you will be the future and after I leave, you will be the teachers,'' he stated loudly as he circled through their tables under the tent.

''You are sitting on land here that has been occupied continuously for 5,000 years; your ancestors are still here,'' he added, pointing to the grown-up field near the old cemetery. ''This is where our little school was located here.''

Charter schools are fast becoming popular alternatives to BIA grant schools. The school is technically a public school and must comply with all state regulations. The new Minisinaakwaang school promotes leadership, academic excellence, Ojibwe heritage and giving its students options for their careers and lives.