Mille Lacs Band modernizes the learning of the Ojibwe language

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DULUTH – William Gidagigwaneb Premo, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, was standing in line at the grocery store recently behind a group of young Native American girls. One of them dropped a dollar, he said, so he leaned down and told him that in Ojibwa.

“His eyes got as big as saucers,” Premo said.

When he walked past his group on the way out of the store, someone asked him, “What did that old fool say,” he said with a laugh.

After that, he wanted to make sure all Ojibway children learned bits of their language.

To “talk to your grandmother, have a line or two to say to her that would make her proud, make her happy,” he said.

That explains his role in a new app launched by the Mille Lacs Band and Rosetta Stone this month. As the group’s number of native speakers has fallen to less than two dozen, it has stepped up its efforts to preserve and revitalize the language for generations to come: the app joins five recently released Ojibwe-language books, among others projects.

The group, which owns all rights to the app, will also receive proceeds from sales.

The payment arrangement was a way to avoid skepticism from band members, said Anton Treuer, an Ojibwe language professor at Bemidji State University and an author who consulted on the project. Native Americans are often exploited by government and corporations, he said, and this was a way to allay their concerns.

While Rosetta Stone has several partnerships involving endangered languages, the Mille Lacs project is its first with Ojibwe and the first in the state, said Alexandra Loginov, Ojibwe program development manager for Rosetta Stone.

Crews come to east-central Minnesota to film and record interviews and stories with Ojibwe-speaking band members for the app and its desktop version, which focuses on vocabulary, grammar, enunciation and culture. The platform is free for Mille Lacs members and descendants and $100 for most others.

“The great thing about an online program is that you can leverage the knowledge of a few to make language and cultural education accessible to many,” Loginov said.

The company worked with Mille Lacs to ensure the app taught what the group saw as most vital, largely showcasing the Mille Lacs community. What has been captured, then, is the language spoken there. Six learning levels are provided.

About 20% of the group’s Ojibway speakers have died during the COVID-19 pandemic, Treuer said.

Great strides have been made in teaching Ojibway through immersion schools and the development of new resources, he said, but so many first-language speakers have been lost. Now second-language speakers like him need to keep the work going, he said, and tools like the app are helping to keep the words and stories of seniors alive.

To lose a language is to lose “connective tissue,” Treuer said.

Indigenous people are “constantly changing codes, trying to accept something that will never accept you,” he said of white culture. “But if we rely on the revitalization of our own language and culture, we can be accepted for who exactly we are, and that heals and humanizes those who have experienced marginalization and oppression.”

Premo, who told stories for the app, considers himself rather fluid. Ojibwe was his first language growing up, but it faded away when he first left the reservation as a young man to join the army. But it never disappeared, he said.

“The words are there, I just have to hear them again,” the 74-year-old said. “The more I talk to other elders, the more the language wakes up.”

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