U works to revive, retain native languages

The American Indian studies department offers Dakota and Ojibwe courses.

by Emma Carew

Few University professors require a prayer pipe and wild rice for in-class activities. In fact, Dennis Jones may be one of the only ones.

Jones, who prefers to use his native name, Pebaamibines, teaches first- and second-year Ojibwe language in the American Indian studies department.

Hear a native Ojibwe speaker, Pebaamibines, and one of his students, Diidaashimi, introduce themselves in Ojibwe and English.

Pebaamibines (mp3)
Diidaashimi (mp3)

“It’s part of the language revitalization movement to honor your traditional name, as opposed to the colonized names,” Pebaamibines said.

Pebaamibines used the materials in a special ceremony last week to honor the spirit keeper of the language, and invited his students to bring traditional food to class.

The department was the first of its kind in 1969, when the American Indian movement began in Minneapolis, Pebaamibines said.

Pebaamibines said many of the native languages are in danger of dying out as a result of the residence and boarding schools for American Indians instituted by the government in the 1950s and ’60s.

Students at the boarding schools were punished for speaking the native language, he said, and many grandparents of current native students were a part of that generation – a generation that didn’t teach their children the language.

Instead there was “intergenerational shame that was passed down,” Pebaamibines said, and the language began to die.

Pebaamibines’ 11 second-year students have a range of reasons for studying the language.

Some, like English junior Cole Premo, said one of his parents is Ojibwe and liked the idea of being connected to their culture.

Not all of Pebaamibines’ students are native, like English and American Indian studies senior Laura Ewald. Although not of American Indian heritage herself, Ewald said she has studied a number of languages and liked Ojibwe because it was a “beautiful language” and she felt spiritually connected to it.

Nutrition and American Indian studies junior David Rodriguez, who prefers to use his spirit name Diidaashimi, said some tribes have lost their language completely, and report feeling “spiritually dead” as a result.

Not quite the typical college junior, Diidaashimi, 52, said Pebaamibines has taught students about the Ojibwe culture in addition to the language, explaining lodge ceremonies and naming processes.

Diidaashimi’s name means “wind that you can see,” and was given to him by a medicine man who met one of Diidaashimi’s ancestors in a vision.

In addition to the Ojibwe language track, the department offers a three-year Dakota language sequence, American Indian studies department chairwoman Jean O’Brien said.

“It’s just an essential aspect of native culture,” she said of the languages.

Important concepts of “what it means to belong in the world,” are communicated through the intricacies of the language, O’Brien said.

The state recently recognized the importance of the work University professors are doing to revitalize the language, she said, and the department received a state appropriation last year.

The state gave $175,000 to the Twin Cities campus for Dakota language instruction, and $125,000 to the Duluth campus for Ojibwe instruction, O’Brien said.

The money will be used to develop practicum classes and a teachers’ certificate program, she said.

“With internal money we have, we’re creating a parallel program for Ojibwe,” she said.

Producing teachers of the language is integral to the revitalization process, Pebaamibines said.

The Ojibwe language track offers students the opportunity to assist in teaching intro level classes, he said, and many of the students who graduate from the program have gone on to continue teaching Ojibwe in charter schools and immersion schools.

“The language revitalization has begun,” he said. “And that is the formula.”

Emma Carew is a senior staff reporter.