Youth hold the key to long-term success of language revitalization
Band members have been hearing a lot about language revitalization in recent years — from immersion classrooms in Wewinabi Early Education and Nay Ah Shing Schools, to the publication of books made up of stories authored by Elders, to the development of a Rosetta Stone app that will make language lessons accessible to anyone with a smartphone.
None of these projects will save the Ojibwe language without help from willing learners — and the staff of the Ge-Niigaanizijig youth program know that young people hold the key to the long-term revitalization of Ojibwemowin.
With that in mind, the youth mentors were determined to make Ojibwe language classes available to students in the program. District II mentor Cheyanne Peet said the team recognized the importance of the language, and with a declining number of fluent speakers, it’s time for younger Band members to step up.
”Kids are at a critical stage of their life, so I think it’s important to stress the importance of Ojibwe language so it becomes a regular part of their adult lives,” said Cheyanne. ”It’s part of our identity, and for our kids to grow up as healthy adults, we need to instill the language and culture into their lives.”
Memengwaakwe (Samantha Peet) works with Aanjibimaadizing as the Project Manager for the Ojibwe Language Strategic Initiative. In addition to teaching classes for staff and clients of Aanjibimaadizing, Memengwaakwe is also teaching the Ge-Niigaanizijig classes.
”We’ve already started to see the positive effect the classes have on the kids,” said Memengwaakwe. ”When we started they were very timid, but now they’re becoming more comfortable and outgoing.”
For now, the classes are held twice a month, but as Memengwaakwe develops curriculum, they will become more frequent. She’s also keeping the classes short to keep students who are overwhelmed with Zoom classes from tuning out.
As time goes on, the staff hope to build the curriculum, develop language and culture videos, and introduce youth to important coming-of-age ceremonies — with help from Lee Obizaan Staples and his cultural apprentice, Dan Wind.
The language course is geared toward beginners, although some of the students have learned the basics already in school.
”It’s very much starting from scratch,” said Memengwaakwe. ”The main focus is to have them walk away with a couple simple words so they’re not overwhelmed, and they’re able to retain something.”
Memengwaakwe is assisted in the language classes by Ozaawaanakwad (James Clark). Cheyanne said Memengwaakwe and Ozaawaanakwad have made the classes attractive for students. ”They’ve made it an inviting environment,” said Cheyanne. ”They keep the conversation going, so the kids are really opening up and having fun.”
Ozaawaanakwad said they understand that kids are growing tired of Zoom meetings, so they are working to make the language classes different. ”When you’ve been sitting in Zoom classes all day, who wants to go to another stale meeting?” he said. ”Memengwaakwe and I have been to those classes, and we know how stale it can be. But if you bring the right dynamic, it can be a great way to learn.”
The Ge-Niigaanizijig staff will also be learning from Memengwaakwe and Ozaawaanakwad so they can become language-learning resources for the students.
Cheyanne said the staff have four goals in mind as they develop the language program: Normalize Ojibwe language use in the community, create lifelong learning opportunities, develop resources, and support the daily use of language and culture.
Ge-Niigaanizijig Director Carlos Merrill said, ”I’ve heard nothing but good things about the class from the people attending. Memengwaakwe and Ozaawaanakwad are doing a great job. They make it easy and fun to learn the language. We are fortunate to have these resources, and we look forward to seeing more and more young people participate in learning and helping to preserve the Ojibwe language.”
OJIBWEMOWIN WITH MEMENGWAAKWE
Ge-Niigaanizijig is offering Ojibwe language classes twice a month for elementary students and teens. This month, classes will be held on March 8 and March 22, with the elementary class beginning at 5 p.m. and the teen class (ages 12 and up) beginning at 5:45.
Students need to be enrolled in the Ge-Niigaanizijig program to participate. If you’d like to enroll, call the Aanjibimaadizing office at 320-532-7407 or 800-922-4457. The forms are available for download at https://millelacsband.com/services/ge-niigaanizijig-program.
Memengwaakwe (Samanthan Peet) is a District II Band member who serves as Project Manager for Aanjibimaadizing, which operates the Ge-Niigaanizijig youth program. She is assisted by Ozaawaanakwad (James Clark), who is the great-grandson of the late Naawigiizis (Jim Clark), a respected Band member, teacher, and author. Ozaawaanakwad is working with Aanjibimaadizing though a two-year fellowship with Lead for Minnesota, which puts young adults in rural and tribal communities to do work that would not be possible otherwise. James graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth last year with a degree in American Indian Studies.