Language is alive

Knowledge of Indigenous languages spreads in Minnesota and beyond

In a second-grade classroom in Richfield, Minnesota, a quiet boy stood in front of his classmates and spoke about his Ojibwe heritage. He talked animatedly, sharing that he was learning Ojibwe at home, teaching his classmates words, and explaining what it means for his family to be enrolled tribal members. The students listened attentively. They hadn’t known their classmate was Ojibwe, and they enjoyed seeing his excitement and learning from him.

Mary Hermes, a professor of second languages education, was visiting the classroom. Hermes is the co-founder and executive director of Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia and was sharing a book she and her team had made in Ojibwe language as part of their effort to inspire younger generations of Ojibwe language learners.

“When he spoke he was carefully claiming his heritage, telling me and his classmates that he was Ojibwe,” says Hermes. “In a way it was his coming out. I was delighted.”

Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia is a nonprofit organization that develops Ojibwe educational materials for children, provides training on language education, and documents the Ojibwe language so it remains preserved for future generations. Hermes visits elementary schools and sees students engage with the books, games, and multimedia language lessons she brings to them. Ojibwe children become especially involved in the lessons.

Colorfully illustrated books spread on a table
Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia books

That day, the boy’s teacher told Hermes she had never seen him so excited about a lesson. Hermes has known for a long time that there’s a desire among Indigenous youth for a deeper connection to their cultures and recognition of their heritage in the greater world.

Indigenous languages revitalization movement

Pressures to assimilate Indigenous people worldwide have caused Indigenous languages to decline. Of the estimated 7,000 Indigenous languages spoken throughout the world today, linguists predict that nearly half will become extinct by the end of the 21st century. But the recent Indigenous languages revitalization movement is fighting languages extinction by teaching youth to be proud of their Indigenous heritage, increasing efforts to teach Indigenous languages, and naming Indigenous knowledge as a solution in today’s era of climate change.

Identity and globalization are two key factors that motivate individuals to support the Indigenous languages revitalization movement, which has no formal organization but describes the current worldwide push to resist the suppression of Indigenous people and cultures.

Like many who support the movement, Hermes’ journey to discover her connection to (Ojibwe) Native American heritage was not a straightforward path. Adopted as a young child into an Irish Catholic family, she became interested in learning more about her mixed (Dakota) Native American, Chinese, and European heritage when she was a teenager. She began studying the Ojibwe language as an adult.

Through her studies of the Ojibwe language, Hermes found a connection to identity and place that she had never experienced in English. She eventually helped found an Ojibwe immersion language school, Waadookodaading School with the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in western Wisconsin, in hopes that she could help students deepen their relationship with their indigenous heritage even as they made their way in the wider world.

“I wanted to start a language school for children so they could feel always connected, yet mobile,” says Hermes.

“Language has become a way of reconnecting to heritage,” she adds.

Today on the faculty in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Hermes teaches an Indigenous languages revitalization course. In 2000, with educator Kevin Roach, BS ’06, she cofounded and continues to lead Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia, which has partnerships with tribal schools and other organizations investing in Ojibwe language revitalization.

“We try to look for language needs, and then meet those needs,” says Melissa Engman, PhD ’17, administrative director of Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia. The staff of four, in conjunction with 15 elder and speaker consultants, develop and produce all the education materials. They have received funding from the Bush Foundation as well as private donations for their initiatives.

On the Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia website, the organization proposes a simple but convincing path toward preserving indigenous languages: “The language revitalization movement is based partially on numbers. That is to say, if enough people start to use even a little bit of Ojibwe, it helps to shift the general awareness and status of the language.”

Hermes has seen an increase in the number of language learners over her two decades of studying Ojibwe and supporting Indigenous languages revitalization.

“There are more Ojibwe language learners today than 20 years ago,” she says. “There are more speakers under the age of 20 because of the language revitalization movement.”

Mary Hermes showed a children’s book in Ojibwe to Veronica Quillien, left, a doctoral student and learner-speaker of Bàsàa from Cameroon.

Combatting centuries of colonialism and internalized shame about Indigenous heritage is an important part of the Indigenous languages revitalization movement. There is still a long road to making Indigenous languages flourish again, but Hermes sees the growing number of language learners as a hopeful sign.

“Language is alive,” Hermes likes to remind her students. Keeping languages alive, along with animals and plants, is vital to the health of the planet.

Innovations in language education

In her language revitalization course at the University of Minnesota, Hermes and her students develop projects aimed at supporting linguistic, cultural, and identity revolutions in their countries. Several students with ties to countries outside the United States sign up for the language revitalization course each semester. Diverse experiences allow students to share strategies that have worked in different countries and find common trends in their research findings.

Hermes strives to teach her students that Indigenous languages and cultures cross political boundaries, a fact that she hopes will inspire students to think beyond the confines of nationalism, political borders, and even their chosen area of study. As she gives lessons in the Ojibwe language, she makes sure to remind students that Ojibwe people are not isolated within Minnesota; they also live in cities across North America.

Students not only take courses from Hermes but also work with her as an adviser on a wide array of projects. Veronica Quillien, a learner–speaker of Bàsàa from Cameroon, researches and works at the intersection of art, creativity, and language reclamation.

“My research interest is on the remaking of culture,” says Quillien.

She is learning Bàsàa as an adult, and her imperfect pronunciation has come up in language conversations with her father. To embrace the imperfections, she expresses language in many art forms. The “remaking of culture” more specifically “is about learning from the elder within the rough form [of the spoken language], and then fitting it into ways that allow the next generation to consume it.”

Quillien interviews elders, primarily her father, with the intent of extracting wisdom encapsulated in the Bàsàa language. Her multilingual graphic novel, Yigil i mam ma loñ (Reclaiming Roots), is the product of two language conversations with her father. Written in Bàsàa, English, and French, Quillien’s goal was to capture Bàsàa knowledge and experiences in a popular form that would draw in current and future generations. She also develops zines, has a documentary film, and sculpts—all artistic expressions that convey what it means to be Bàsàa.

As part of their research, many students pursuing a PhD collect data and interview members of their community about their relationship to indigeneity, their proficiency in a heritage language, and their desires to become more connected to their Indigenous heritage. Maria Schwedhelm, a PhD candidate in curriculum and instruction, grew up in Mexico and the United States. Like many Mexicans, she has heard family stories about an Indigenous ancestor but knows little about her Indigenous heritage. She understands the pressures to assimilate into mainstream, Spanish-speaking Mexican society, and her work supports the revitalization of Indigenous languages and cultures in the country.

“Discrimination is ongoing,” Schwedhelm says, especially by people who believe in “belonging to the country through Spanish.” She travels yearly to Oaxaca, a southern Mexican state where more than a million people speak an Indigenous language, to learn Mixtec and work on projects aimed to support language revitalization. She plans to return to Oaxaca to work with teachers to support innovations in language and heritage education. She is exploring and learning how local knowledges and pedagogies are being used to create spaces for Indigenous languages, both within and outside formal education.

Dawn Quigley teaching in a classroom
Photo courtesy of Dawn Quigley

Dawn Quigley, PhD ’18, a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe nation, was an advisee of Hermes and is now an assistant professor in the education department at St. Catherine University. She researches and develops Native curriculum for the state’s school communities, especially non-Native educators. Eighteen years of teaching in the public schools taught her that Native curriculum written and delivered by Native teachers is lacking. Quigley acknowledges that bringing Native teachers into the public school system will take longer, so she developed workshops focused on non-Native teacher development for her doctoral dissertation in curriculum and instruction and culture and teaching, along with creating nativereadermn.blogspot.com as a resource for non-Native teachers to deliver quality Native curriculum to students in a respectful manner.

“The Native students were hungry for culture,” says Quigley. “I realized that we needed to encourage our non-Native teachers to be allies.”

Her young adult novel, Apple in the Middle, published in August by the Contemporary Voices of Indigenous People’s series of North Dakota University Press, describes the experiences of a young Native teen living between cultures who is learning to embrace her Indigenous heritage. It includes words and phrases in the Michif language, one of the Indigenous languages of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe in North Dakota.

Allies for Indigenous languages

While the Indigenous languages revitalization movement emphasizes connection to heritage and culture, non-Indigenous allies do powerful and important work. Engman, administrative director of Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia, has a long history as a language learner, with extensive studies in French and Arabic.

As a graduate student, Engman enrolled in Hermes’ languages revitalization class, where she began learning Ojibwe. Through her Ojibwe studies, Engman began to gain a deeper understanding of her home state of Minnesota. She realized the people who lived on this land before colonization had the richest connection to it.

“I love this place, I love the Midwest, and this is the language that grew out of this place,” says Engman. “It just felt like I should have been doing this all along.”

Soon, she began working closely with Hermes on research for her dissertation. She went on to complete her PhD in second language education. After graduation, she began working at Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia in addition to teaching in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in an adjunct capacity.

“If I want to live here and pay homage and honor this place that grew me,” says Engman, “I should figure out a way to help the language that grew here to stay here and keep growing.” 

Gaining power through Indigenous languages

Hermes hopes that Indigenous languages will become part of everyday communication and that classroom language instruction will no longer be essential to keeping languages alive.

While classroom instruction has been vital in keeping languages alive, one problem with teaching Ojibwe in schools is that teachers tend to use a “foreign language model” rather than a communicative, heritage model.

“A lot of schools teach Ojibwe, but it’s never been language as communication,” says Hermes. “It’s been a lot of memorizing nouns—an English overlay onto Ojibwe—while two-thirds of Ojibwe is verbs.”

Hermes hopes the resurgence of interest in Indigenous languages will lead to worldwide improvements in teaching language.

Technology is helping Ojibwe language learners to find each other and create wider spaces for communication in the world, she observes. The internet allows for language classes to take place online, uniting language learners across state and country lines. YouTube has become a resource for language lessons, communication, and artistic expression. Online language courses, which tend to be less expensive and often take place in the evening, are more accessible and have enjoyed increasing popularity. The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, established by the University’s Department of American Indian Studies, is a free online resource accessible to everyone with internet access.

An even stronger signal of language revitalization’s momentum is that language learners are communicating via social media and text messages in their Indigenous language. Today, Ojibwe learners have replaced “lol” as the standard response to jokes with “nb,” short for nimbaap, Ojibwe for “I’m laughing.” Facebook and Twitter, too, are spaces that support spontaneous and natural communication in Ojibwe.

More and more, lessons learned in the classroom and practiced in virtual spaces are being spoken in person.

“It’s wonderful when people are at events and they use the language,” says Hermes. “That’s our goal, to hear Ojibwe language spoken.”

Learn more about Mary Hermes in the culture and teaching and second language education programs in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

More Native students

Native American students have long been underrepresented in U.S. higher education. The University of Minnesota–Twin Cities is no exception.

Modest gains at the University have come in recent years. A good share of that change is in the College of Education and Human Development.

CEHD’s Native student enrollment over all increased from 69 in fall 2010 to 105 in fall 2018. Notably, enrollment at the graduate and professional level has nearly doubled in that time, from 33 (1.1 percent) to 63 (3.0 percent).

The Department of Curriculum and Instruction—where Mary Hermes is at work—enrolled 17 Native graduate and professional students this fall. Enrollment spans all levels, from certificate to doctoral programs. For example, several teachers at Bdote Learning Center in Minneapolis, a public charter school offering year-round Dakota and Ojibwe language immersion, are enrolled in licensure and certificate programs. Program areas of Native grad and professional students include science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, second language education, arts in education, and English as a second language.

Two other CEHD departments each enrolled 15 Native graduate students this fall. Learn about the School of Social Work’s efforts in First steps, and read about a new faculty member in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development in Exploring indigenous knowledge systems.

“We want this increase to continue,” says Na’im Madyun, associate dean for undergraduate programs, equity, and diversity. “It pushes us to think about how we’re presenting ourselves alongside what is just.”

Story by Victoria Blanco | Photos by Tj Turner except as noted | Winter 2019