Skip to main content

The Importance of Ojibwe Language Revitalization

Loss of language and culture is a main concern of Ojibwe people today. Michael Meuers talks about the ways people of the multidimensional efforts underway in Minnesota to preserve the Native American language of Ojibwemowin.

Loss of language and culture is a main concern of Ojibwe people today. According to Dr. Anton Treuer, professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University, in his book Ojibwe in Minnesota, estimates that there are fewer than 1,000 Ojibwe speakers in the United States with nearly all of them residing in Minnesota, and a majority of them from Red Lake. Treuer estimates that fewer than 100 speakers are left in Michigan, Wisconsin and North Dakota combined.

Although there are thousands of speakers in Canada, language revitalization is becoming a concern there as well. Even within reservations speakers tend to be concentrated. “Almost all the speakers from Red Lake are from the community of Ponemah”, says Treuer. He estimates 675 speakers in Minnesota, 400 of them from Red Lake. “Language and culture go hand in hand”, adds Treuer, and points out that there are only a handful of Ojibwe speakers who conduct all traditional funerals in Ojibwe country.

Minnesota Ojibwe have begun a multifaceted approach to preserve the language. Immersion schools are being funded, and several other approaches are being conducted to garner renewed interest in language and culture, not only among Indians, but non-Indians as well.

The Minnesota Legislature recognizes the issue too, and has written legislation that states that the revitalization of American Indian languages is of vital importance to preserving the American Indian culture. The legislature has provided funging, with efforts in Minnesota designed to develop programs to teach the Dakota and Ojibwe languages to students, and to create fluent speakers at both the kindergarten through grade 12 level, and at the postsecondary level.

In the United States there is an "English-Only" political movement that questions the value of teaching languages other than English, including indigenous languages. But throughout many language symposiums, there has been a theme of how language and culture are intimately entwined and cannot be separated.


Treuer writes in the aforementioned book that, "The Maori of New Zealand went from 7 percent fluency to 100 percent for all students in their school system and made Maoritanga one of the country's official languages. Native Hawaiians went from 500 speakers to 15,000. Hawaiian is also an official language in Hawaii along with English. Both groups have not only enjoyed language revitalization of their traditional languages and cultures but also a major boost to community cohesion, pride and solidarity. They've also seen the first major declines in gang activity and drug and alcohol abuse in their histories. The Ojibwe could pursue the same goals in Minnesota.

Gaelic in Ireland is also having great success in revival.

In the summer of 2009 efforts began in Bemidji to successfully convince over 150 businesses to post bilingual signage in English and Ojibwe from bathrooms to produce.

At a language symposium in Alaska the Iñupiaq Eskimos produced a card describing values. One side of the card read:

Every Iñupiaq is responsible to all other Iñupiat for the survival of our cultural spirit, and the values and traditions through which it survives. Through our extended family, we retain, teach, and live our Iñupiaq way.

The other side read, "With guidance and support from Elders, we must teach our children Iñupiaq values" and then the card listed the values of "knowledge of language, sharing, respect for others, cooperation, respect for elders, love for children, hard work, knowledge of family tree, avoidance of conflict, respect for nature, spirituality, humor, family roles, hunter success, domestic skills, humility, [and] responsibility to tribe." The card concluded with "OUR UNDERSTANDING OF OUR UNIVERSE AND OUR PLACE IN IT IS A BELIEF IN GOD AND A RESPECT FOR ALL HIS CREATIONS."

What a wonderful reminder that indigenous language revitalization is part of a larger attempt by indigenous peoples to retain their cultural strengths in the face of the demoralizing assaults of an all-pervasive modern individualistic, materialistic, and hedonistic technological culture. The card reminds us of why it is so important to do everything we can to help the efforts of any person or group that wants to work to preserve their language.

Perhaps had the English, Spanish and later Americans assimilated with the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island as did the French, we would have a better society today.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

The Written Language


The Ojibwe language has different sounds than many may be unfamiliar with. This is because Ojibwemowin does not lend itself to the 26 letter English alphabet. Rules then for pronunciation are being developed using the English alphabet as a base. As one can see demonstrated above, Ojibwe and Chippewa are actually the same word heard and then written differently.

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.

The Ojibwe Dictionary Project

The Endangered Languages Program of the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities is funding the development of a new dictionary of Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language, through the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Building out from the widely-used Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe, the new bilingual dictionary will contain words contributed by elders through their recorded stories, conversations, and discussions about words. The completed reference dictionary is expected to have entries for between 30,000 and 40,000 main Ojibwe words, each illustrated with a variety of inflected forms and example sentences, related to other members of its word family, and analyzed into its meaningful word parts.

Smaller specialized dictionaries for student use at different levels will be derived from the reference dictionary. An electronic dictionary will feature recordings of the pronunciations of words by the speaker contributors. Classification of words by word class and by meaning will allow users of the online dictionary to choose and display words according to their topic, form, or level of difficulty.

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