‘It’s a powerful language.’ University of Minnesota student wants to help kids learn Ojibwe

University of Minnesota student wants to help kids learn Ojibwe

‘It’s a powerful language.’ University of Minnesota student wants to help kids learn Ojibwe

University of Minnesota senior Jaeden King is on a mission.

“What’s going to happen to us if we don’t know the language?” she declares. “I wish to connect with my elders. I feel like there’s a connection.”

King, 23, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a descendant of the Red Lake Nation, wants to pay it forward by becoming a language keeper.

“So, it’s more than preserving the language,” she says. “It’s also preserving the culture.”

King initially planned to study business, but she was encouraged by her grandmother Delsie Day, who frequently spoke in Ojibwe, to consider a different direction. 

“We’re very close, me and my grandma, and she said ‘You’re going to study Ojibwe,'” King recalls. “‘That’s what you’re going to do, you’re going to keep the language.'”

King, double-majoring in American Indian Studies and the Ojibwe language, graduates in May.

After that, she plans to move back to Mille Lacs and open an Ojibwe immersion daycare.

She’d also like to work on getting that language into schools in Onamia and Hinckley. 

“I want to expose the kids up there to what we do in a positive way,” King explains. “A positive environment where they want to be at, where they want to learn the language.”

That passion is shared by Naomi Long, who became a youth mentor for King when she was 13.

“I think it’s amazing, she’s going to do it,” she says. “Because I believe in her, that she can do it. I know she can.”

Long is the Interim Director of the Waasabiik Ojibwemotaadiwin Immersion Program in Red Lake, which teaches Ojibwe to 3- and 4-year-old kids.

She notes that more than 100 students have graduated from the program since it was launched in 2014.

Long says there are 13 similar immersion programs across Minnesota, perhaps more.

She declares this is about more than reclaiming the language, but about healing, too. 

“The more that they’re learning, and picking up on it, not only learning it but bringing it home,” Long says. “It’s a part of us that we felt. It’s always been there, but it’s a piece that we’re reclaiming back.”

The Minnesota Historical Society says nationwide, there are only a couple of hundred ‘first speakers’ —people who have been speaking Ojibwe since birth.

Travis Zimmerman, with the Mille Lacs Indian Museum, calls Ojibwe an ‘endangered language.’

“So, it’s still a language that’s in trouble and it’s something we really need to hang onto,” he says. “Part of that, it was lost during the boarding schools, where language was literally beaten out of folks, you know.”

Zimmerman points to the government-run boarding schools, where children were once forced to attend but were banned from speaking their native language.

“There’s been a couple of generations where speaking the language was frowned upon,” he says. “It was looked at as a bad thing.”

The Historical Society says efforts to reclaim the Ojibwe language began with the opening of survival schools by the American Indian Movement in the 1960s and ’70s.

There are now language schools at each of the Seven Tribes of Ojibwe in Minnesota.

“Just reclaiming who we are, reminding us of who we are,” Long says. “It’s a powerful language. It’s a powerful feeling when you actually learn it and use it — when you see the little ones using it.”

Whether in writing or the spoken word, it’s a language reflecting the culture, teachings and identity of the Ojibwe Tribes.

Meanwhile, King says she’s already gotten an offer from one school district about teaching Ojibwe to elementary students.

She hopes she can be a part of keeping that language alive for future generations.

“I have a lot of younger family members, younger siblings, younger cousins. I’d like them to feel the way I feel, you know?” King says. “Learning the language is a beautiful thing. it’s empowering. I’d love for any youth to feel that way.” 

You can find out more about the Waasabiik Ojibwemotaadiwin Immersion Program here.