Giving a language back

Mary Hermes is helping to revitalize Ojibwe language in the Great Lakes region

“My story is about identity and being a mixed-cultural-heritage person,” says Mary Hermes, lead researcher for the Ojibwe Conversational Archives project funded by the National Science Foundation.

Hermes didn’t grow up speaking Ojibwe. She was adopted into an Irish Catholic working-class family in St. Louis and did not hear Ojibwe language spoken until 1993, when she moved to Lac Court Oreilles reservation in Wisconsin during graduate school. Today she is proficient and helping to return the language to people like herself, whose ancestors spoke it for generations.

“It’s as if I want to say, ‘Here! Here is your language back’—as Winona LaDuke says about the indigenous seeds she gets back to their places of origin,” says Hermes. “I see the difference it makes for children and parents—it is so empowering.

“But this is not about saving a language for a small number of Ojibwe people,” she continues. “Language is a resource of a place. And, especially if you learn a language outside of your own language family, it is also good for your brain!”

Southwestern Ojibwe

Southwestern Ojibwe is the language historically spoken in the forested region south of Lake Superior, now Minnesota and Wisconsin. It is part of the Algonquian language family that stretches to the Atlantic coast. Southwestern Ojibwe is one of potentially more than 3,000 languages to be included in the Endangered Languages Project launched by Google in June, connecting speakers with learners around the world. Read more about Southwestern Ojibwe.

Hermes spent the past year on the Twin Cities campus as a visiting professor in CEHD from the University of Minnesota Duluth. In fall 2012 she joins the Department of Curriculum and Instruction full-time.

Her work on curriculum theory, cultural production, and language revitalization is a combination of interests that emerged on a wide-ranging college and career path.

“The only reason I went to college was that I played the bassoon!” Hermes says with a laugh. The bassoon took her to Oberlin College, where she double-majored in performance and third-world studies. Philosophy courses led her to think a lot about social justice issues and later travel to Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

It was also during her college years that Hermes met her birth parents, both of mixed heritage that included Native American descent. Living through segregation in St. Louis, her half-Asian father had been treated as black, and at the time Hermes was born, interracial marriage was illegal. But her parents stayed together and when Hermes met them, she met her siblings, too.

She set off for graduate study in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. Inspired by a scholar combining cultural studies and film, Hermes changed her major to curriculum studies and moved to Lac Court Oreilles reservation near Hayward. There she worked in a tribal school for five years, finishing her dissertation on culture-based schooling in 1995.

“Since the Civil Rights movement, the emphasis [in American Indian education] has been on culture-based schools,” says Hermes. “But instruction has been in English.”

After four years teaching at Carlton College, Hermes was drawn back to the reservation. She accepted a teaching appointment at UMD that allowed her to reside at Lac Court Oreilles—70 miles away as a crow flies—while resuming work on Ojibwe language revitalization.

Laughter, teasing, and relationships

Hermes’ work takes her into the homes of elders recording the language. It also takes her into the homes of young families to investigate the effectiveness of various teaching methods and technologies.

“Laughter, teasing, and relationships are all essential to learn a language,” she explains. “But most language teaching lacks those very things.” The Conversational Archives Project helps to address some of those challenges.

Her co-investigator on the archives project, American Indian studies professor John Nichols, is also a coauthor of an online dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe that debuted this year. Hermes discovered joint interests with CEHD’s Kendall King, second languages and culture education, during a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study. She knows her research has the potential to engage scholarship in fields from linguistics to biodiversity studies.

“I am only part of the movement,” she says. “There is so much community work going on.”

Hermes will continue to divide her time between the Twin Cities and a home in Hayward. She and her husband, graphic designer Kevin Roach, live with their teen children. This year, Hermes’ adoptive mother, 86, joined the household, too.

“I feel the full circle in caring for her,” says Hermes. “She saved my life.”

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

Story by Gayla Marty | July 2012