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Red Lake Takes Initiative on Ojibwe Language Revitalization

Red Lake is exploring a multifaceted approach to preserve the Native American Ojibwe language in a variety of ways including a summit and work on the Ojibwemowin dictionary.

The Red Lake Initiative

Red Lake is exploring a multifaceted approach to preserve the language at Red Lake in a variety of ways. This included sponsoring a two-day language summit held about three years ago. Other efforts include teachings online, teaching in the schools and community education, and looking at other ways including a language immersion school at Red Lake.

One idea that came out of the Niigaane visit was exploring the possibility of a Charter School with Ojibwe language immersion. The thought might be to partner with Niigaane, and maybe even locate a school in Bemijdi in order to serve all three reservations. Niigaane has the experience, and Red Lake has the speakers. A Charter School would be eligible for state funding.

At a special meeting of the Red Lake Tribal Council held on April 27, 2010, the council voted unanimously to declare Ojibwe as the official language of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians.

Members of the Tribal Council say they will support initiatives to encourage the state of Minnesota to adopt Ojibwe as an official language of the state.

It is important to differentiate this type of effort as an official language from say French as an official language of Canada, or the controversy of Spanish speakers in the southwest. Ojibwe and other indigenous languages are the original languages of the land and not imported tongues as are French, Spanish, or for that matter...English.

Last Fall, Red Lake Chairman Floyd Jourdain Jr. offered tobacco to eleven persons gathered at the Little Rock Roundhouse for the purpose of reenergizing Ojibwe language revitalization at Red Lake.

The meeting was attended by fluent speakers, elders and others interested in aspects of Ojibwemowin revitalization.“Ojibwe is now the official language of Red Lake,” said Jourdain, “and that’s not just a public relations thing, we want to make it so! Many things can be done, including encouraging more language and culture in our schools.”

Fluent speaking elders will be key, and will be encouraged to share their knowledge, give advice, and participate in this important initiative. It was decided that the group would begin with Ojibwemowin signage on the reservation in two areas, buildings (inside and outside) and street signs. Jourdain complimented the City of Bemidji on their use of Ojibwe/English (bilingual) signage in places of business.

The main roads would receive Ojibwe names first. The group further decided to put together a strategy for either renaming tribal buildings or translating the existing names into Ojibwemowin, for example “New Beginnings” would be translated to “Oshki-maajiitaawinan”. Both Ojibwe and English would be used to create interest and learning.

Much discussion centered around the need for consistency in the spelling of Ojibwe. All concurred that Red Lake should encourage the use the “double vowel” system. The double vowel system is used at Ojibwemowin immersion schools in Minnesota, is the preferred spelling used in books being written in Ojibwe, and bilingual publications. The Nichols/Nyholm Dictionary is the book of reference for the double vowel system.

Those present at the meeting; Floyd Jourdain (chairman), Frank Dickenson, Collins Oakgrove, Frances Miller, and Melvin Jones (fluent speakers/elders), Ben Bonga and Marcus Tyler (speakers), Sam Strong (economic development director), Michael Meuers (R.L. Public Relations/Bemidji’s Ojibwe signage project), Dean Branchaud, (roads) and Margueritte Secola and Elizabeth Strong (economic development and planning staff).

More on Ojibwemowing Linguistics

Red Lake’s own Eugene Stillday has been working with John Nichols from the University of Minnesota for more than four years to write down and clarify the Red Lake dialect of the Ojibwe language. The Red Lake dialect is the only non-documented dialect of Minnesota tribes. Nichols is the co-author of A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe along with Earl Nyholm.

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There is always discussion on the correct spelling of Ojibwe words. In preserving the language, work is being done to get an accepted or standard spelling of Ojibwe words. It is felt by many, that the double vowel system seems to be the way to go, and rules for pronunciation are being developed, as Ojibwe does not really lend itself to the 26 letter English alphabet.

Stillday and Nichols realize different vowels form different sounds, among the many dialects in the Algonquin languages. They begin by researching the community (in this case Red Lake) and word forms, record it, and decide what words work. It is time consuming but important work.

Moving Ahead: A Message

Language revitalization is important to Indigenous Peoples across the continent. Indian Country Today Media Network has done a number of stories on Ojibwe language revitalization efforts at Bemijdi State University and Bemidji’s Ojibwe Language Project, including a cover story this past April. (see a full list of stories below)

As mentioned earlier, Red Lake has a committee (of which I am a member) that is encouraging tribal programs to post bilingual signage as well. As you may know, I have been spearheading this effort in Bemidji.

If you or your program is interested in posting signage, I and others from the committee will be glad to help. You can make signs yourself with paper or cardboard, or we can help you find places that make signs of plastic, vinyl and other materials. Artwork might be nice too, with so many great artists residing at Red Lake. We can also help with translations for your program’s name, and anything else you might dream up. Restrooms would be pretty easy. I have an eight-page word list I'd be glad to send, if you like, to help stimulate ideas.

The Red Lake Signage Committee is encouraging the use of the Nichols/Nyholm dictionary or the "double vowel" system for spelling Ojibwemowin. We encourage this in order to remain consistent with spelling as there are many different ways to spell Ojibwemowin.

Related articles:

Native American Language Project Takes Another Step Forward

Native American Language Documentary Wins Upper Midwest Emmy

Native American Language Revitalization on Red Lake Agenda

Bemidji’s Ojibwe Language Project Seeking Permanence

Ojibwe Words Help Temper Racism

The Importance of Ojibwe Language Revitalization