Red Lake Nation wants to revitalize Ojibwe language

Red Lake high school sign. (MPR file photo/Tom Robertson)

The Red Lake Nation is placing a greater emphasis on its native language and a two-day language summit this week is an example of the enhanced focus for this northern Minnesota reservation.

The gathering is part of a 10-year language revitalization plan.

“In order to understand the tradition and the ways and the spirituality of a culture one has to be familiar with the language,” said Red Lake Public Relations staff member Michael Meuers.

American Indians were punished for using their language starting in the late 1800s and continuing into the mid-1900s. Indian children were required to leave home at 5 or 6, and attend government boarding schools until age 18. The boarding schools were often far from the reservation where the children lived. The goal of this boarding school era was to force the assimilation of Indians into white culture. Traditional language, culture and spirituality were forbidden.

As a result of that experience, in many tribes only a few elders maintained the language.

Red Lake has a strong core of people fluent in Ojibwe and if the ten-year plan is realized, Ojibwe might well be the most common language on the reservation.

“It is our vision that within 10 years Red Lake will have a younger generation of fluent speakers that promote the language and culture in our communities and act as leaders for the next seven generations.  It is our mission to promote this vision through an immersion school as well as through a variety of other initiatives,” reads a passage from the Red Lake Nation Language Revitalization Plan document.

Preserving language is a focus on other Minnesota Ojibwe reservations as well.

There are Ojibwe immersion schools on the Mille Lacs and Leech Lake reservations, according to Meuers, and Red Lake plans to copy those programs as it develops its own language immersion school.

“Why reinvent the wheel? If we can learn from other people we want to learn that,” Meuers said. “We want to take the shortest distance between two points. That makes all the sense in the world.”

The language revitalization initiative will also make the Ojibwe language much more visible.  For example, tribal programs are being renamed.  The New Beginnings skills training center becomes Oshkiimaajitahda.

Meuers expects the tribal constitution to be translated from English to Ojibwe. Road signs will be in Ojibwe as funding allows.

There’s not a lot of money available to make those changes according to Meuers, but the tribal government is committed to a long term change of culture and language.

And is the younger generation ready to embrace the language of their ancestors?

“This past summer we did a three-day culture and language camp for eight to 14-year-olds. They expected 30 and 60 showed up,” Meuers said. “So there’s a strong interest in this kind of thing.”