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Go to Rekindling the Spirit: The Rebirth of American Indian Spirituality
DocumentRekindling the Spirit: The Rebirth of American Indian Spirituality
DocumentPart 1: The spirits spoke to him
DocumentPart 2: The seventh fire
DocumentPart 3: Christianizing the Indians
DocumentPart 4: One church, two traditions
DocumentPart 5: Where tradition thrives
DocumentPart 6: Ceremony and symbolism
DocumentPart 7: The healing spirit
DocumentPart 8: Returning to the Red Road
Document'The jewelry on American culture'
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Reviving the language
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A group of women huddle around a table at an Ojibwe culture and language camp run by the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation. They're learning to make moccasins. About 100 Ojibwe from throughout the upper midwest attended the gathering. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
For more than a century, the Ojibwe language has been under assault. Generations of American Indians were forced into government or church-run boarding schools, where their native language and culture were forbidden. Today, only a few can speak Ojibwe fluently. But there are growing efforts to revive the language. Some say preserving it is essential to keeping the culture alive. The language is also a vital link to the old spiritual ways.

Rutledge, Minn. — A small group of Ojibwe women of all ages gather around a picnic table in a forest in east central Minnesota. The women are learning to make moccasins. They're cutting patterns out of freshly tanned deer hide.

The moccasin workshop is part of a summer program. It's a camp that focuses on Ojibwe language and culture, run by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. About 100 Ojibwe from throughout the Midwest are here learning to tan hides, make baskets and beads, and process wild rice. They're also here to immerse themselves in Ojibwe language.

Ilene Skinaway is an elder from Luck, Wisconsin. Skinaway is a fluent Ojibwe speaker, but she remembers when speaking the language wasn't allowed. It got her in trouble as a schoolgirl.

"I was always talking in Ojibwe in the classroom," said Skinaway. "And the teacher never liked to have me be so disruptive, you know, talking to my other classmates. Some of the older ones used to call me a dumb Indian because I couldn't talk English."

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Image Veronica Passfield, right, and Corrie Harper

Nearby, Veronica Passfield sits on a blanket with a couple of young girls. She's teaching beadwork. Passfield is from the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. She traveled more than 10 hours to come to the culture camp. Passfield says in her community, Ojibwe language is on the verge of disappearing.

"We only had 24 fluent speakers in the community where my family lives, and we lost half of them, probably, in the last 10 years --- the past five years," Passfield said. "We are very actively trying to preserve what we have and what we still know, and the teachings that are still there. And that's especially the spiritual teachings."

In Ojibwe culture, language and spirituality are closely linked. Many say they're inseparable. Larry Smallwood, director of the Mill Lacs culture camp, says for the Anishinaabe, or First People, the spiritual rituals and ceremonies must be conducted in Ojibwe language.

"It is very important, because that's the way that was given to us by the Creator as Anishinaabe people," said Smallwood. "We were given ways to communicate with the Creator. And that's why it's important, not only in this world, but when we move on to the next world, go to the spirit world. We need that language."

Smallwood says things looked pretty grim just a few years ago. But he's encouraged by a renewed interested in reviving the language. A few people are working to find new ways of teaching the language. One of the approaches is less about rote memorization of vocabulary and more about conversation.

Let's start teaching our kids the language. Wholeheartedly, start teaching them the language. ... The root of our culture, our way of life, lies in the language and in the songs.
- Michael Dahl, White Earth spiritual leader

"It's just people woke up one day and said, 'Hey, we need this,' and it shot out like wildfire," said Smallwood. "We need this. And that's what's happening. It's a whole spiritual awakening. That's what this language is all about."

Reviving the language is not a new idea. Ojibwe has been part of the curriculum in reservation schools for years. But some say the classroom approach has been too removed from everyday life. Children are being taught words and phrases, but most can't understand conversational Ojibwe.

Michael Dahl, a spiritual leader on the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota, says language is essential if Ojibwe culture and spirituality are to survive.

"Let's start teaching our kids the language. Wholeheartedly, start teaching them the language," said Dahl. "Not just ... one, two, three, four, five, and days of the week and months of the year, and animals and colors. Yeah, that's great. But it don't mean nothing when you go to sit at a ceremony ... The root of our culture, our way of life, lies in the language and in the songs."

A new Ojibwe cultural project called Anishinaabe Wi Yung is taking a different approach. It's turning to elders for help. The phrase means We are the First People. The approach is called the master/apprentice program. It brings together an Ojibwe speaking elder with someone in their 20s or 30s.

Rather than sit in a formal classroom, the master and apprentice just hang out together. They do everyday things like cooking, shopping or taking care of children. They each receive a small stipend for their time.

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Image Leslie Harper

Leslie Harper is an apprentice on the Leech Lake Reservation. Harper says she and her master, Josephine Dunn, spend about 15 hours a week together.

"Where my baby-talk level of learning is at right now, she translates," said Harper. "But we try to get away from English as much as possible, and turn it into using real big, grand gestures and facial expressions, and big mimes and gestures just to try and get away from English as much as possible. So that you learn the language just like a little kid learns a language, by hearing that language all around him."

Elders are traditionally given a place of honor in Ojibwe culture. But Harper says in recent years elders have sometimes been ignored by the larger community. She says the master/apprentice program taps a valuable resource for language preservation. Harper says elders are taking interest in what she's doing.

"Now, they have this whole circle of friends, you know, these ladies and a couple of other guys at home," Harper said. "And they know that's what I'm doing. So they test me whenever I'm out. I see them anywhere, I see them at the casino, if I see them at the post office, if I see them at the store, they'll talk Ojibwe to me, you know. Three years ago, these people would never have stopped in the store to talk Ojibwe to me, or to any young person ... I think it's bringing generations back together."

The Ojibwe language exposure is also rubbing off on Harper's family. She says her son, Theo, 3, is learning the language faster than she is.

The master apprentice program is limited in scope. Along with Harper and Josephine Dunn on Leech Lake, there are also partnerships within the Mille Lacs and St. Croix bands. Supporters are looking for funding to expand the program.

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