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Working Group Says Dakota and Ojibwe Language Survival is Questionable

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In 2009, the Minnesota State Legislature established a volunteer working group to “develop a unified strategy to revitalize and preserve indigenous languages of the 11 federally recognized American Indian tribes in Minnesota.” That group turned in its report, Dakota and Ojibwe Language Revitalization in Minnesota in February.

The first key finding listed is that Dakota and Ojibwe languages are in “critical condition,” because the population of fluent and first speakers—who were raised speaking the language—is small to begin with and many don’t have teaching credentials.

The working group recognizes the importance of revitalizing American Indian languages because they are “more than grammar and vocabulary. They are inseparable from American Indian identity. Languages express, reflect, and maintain the connections of people to one another and to the world around them. They are shaped over millennia by communal experience, and they shape how a people come to know who they are and what is true, where they came from, where they live, and how the world around them works materially and spiritually.”

But the group fears that assaults on Native culture in general may mean it’s too late for the languages. They say the survival of Dakota and Ojibwe languages “remains a question. After centuries of assault, indigenous languages require heroic life-saving measures on many fronts.”

Over 18 months of meetings and research, the group determined that there are successful models for language revitalization, and that there are more than 100 programs and activities in Minnesota that expose people to Dakota and Ojibwe languages.

“Few of these programs, however, recognize the essential pedagogic requirements for language revitalization, which include a role for strong immersion programming and the leadership roles for fluent speakers,” the group says in the report.

The legislature also recognized the importance of immersion when assigning the working groups duties, some of which mention immersion programs like identifying curriculum needs and barriers for training teachers to teach Dakota and Ojibwe languages; determining how the state can help develop immersion programs; and identifying state laws that hinder language immersion programs.

The working group conducted a statewide survey of teachers who said they need more fluent speakers as mentors, a first speaker to learn from and technology, among numerous other things. From the state, the group suggested better interpretation of Minnesota K-12 Academic Standards and assistance with developing an immersion school and facilitating teacher preparation programs.

The group pointed to complex teacher licensing requirements in Minnesota Statutes, Section 124D.75 as a hindrance to the staffing of immersion schools.

The full 40-page report is available on the state’s Indian Affairs Council website.

The group dedicated the report to first speakers: “Those elders who speak Dakota and Ojibwe as their first language are our most precious resource for language revitalization. In the short time during which the Volunteer Working Group has been active, several of these few ‘first speakers’ have passed away, and each passing is an irreparable loss that intensifies the urgency of our work.”

The work group included representatives from tribal governments, urban Native American communities, language experts, the Department of Education and Board of Teaching, and the Minnesota Historical Society, among others.