‘Race against the clock’: the school fighting to save the Ojibwe language before its elders pass away | Wisconsin

April 7, 2021


In the deep forest of the Lac Courte Oreilles tribal reservation, sixth-grade teacher Lisa Clemens abruptly halts the group of children behind her and points to the bald eagle circling just above the pines.

Migizi!” Clemens yells.

“Migizi!” her students shout back.

The sunny morning in early March is the first time many of the students and teachers of Waadookodaading, Wisconsin’s only Ojibwe immersion school, have been together since Covid-19 struck.

Waadookodaading means “a place where people help each other” in Ojibwe, the language of people indigenous to the Great Lakes region of Canada and the US upper midwest. At the school, the forest is the children’s classroom. Harvesting maple sap and wild rice turn into math lessons on calculating volume. They learn biology from the fish they catch, clean and eat.

From its start 21 years ago, the school’s work was imbued with the urgency to pass Ojibwe on to a new generation before the few remaining native speakers have died, taking with them the keys to an endangered language and the lessons it offered a post-colonized world.

But the pandemic upended nearly every aspect of life for the tight-knit tribal community.

Covid has hit Native American communities harder than any other group, killing American Indians and Alaskan Natives at almost twice the rate of white Americans, figures showed in February. Patterns in Wisconsin mirrored national trends.

Michael Migizi Sullivan, is a teacher and linguist at Waadookodaading, Wisconsin’s only Ojibwe immersion school. Photograph: Courtesy of Jenny Schlender

“Even before Covid, it was a race against the clock for us to capture as much as we can before the elders pass away,” said Michael Migizi Sullivan, a teacher and the school’s resident linguist.

“With coronavirus spreading like wildfire in Indian country, it’s impacted everything we do. Our gatherings, our ceremonies – all of the stuff we rely on for our mental health and spiritual survival has pretty much come to a halt.”

‘We protected our elders’

As autumn neared and cold weather approached the nation’s heartland, a state that took seven months to reach 100,000 cases saw its numbers double in just 36 days.

As infections spread from the state’s urban centers and college towns toward its rural northwoods, cases began spiking on reservations – worrying tribal leaders that they could see the devastation inflicted on the Navajo and other tribes further west.

In contrast to the rest of the state, whose partisan battles paralyzed the government’s response, tribal leaders used their local authority to aggressively lock down reservations, impose mask orders and curfews, and limit gatherings.

Steven Miszkiewicz, medical director of the Lac Courte Oreilles’ tribal health center, said his staff took the virus seriously from the start, ramping up testing and contact tracing to slow transmission.

“Our staff ate, slept and breathed Covid. We dedicated all our efforts to slowing this down until we had a vaccine,” said Miszkiewicz. “We protected our elders at all costs.”

Waadookodaading prioritized safety, too. Even when surrounding school districts went back to in-person instruction in the fall, Waadookodaading remained virtual.

“We put all this investment into making Ojibwe speakers. We just couldn’t risk them – both the elders and the families our students and teachers return home to. That’s something that’s really hard to convey to people on the outside,” said Brooke Ammann, Waadookodaading director, who prefers to be identified by her Ojibwe name, Niiyogaabawiikwe.

The United Nations lists Ojibwe as one of the world’s “severely endangered” languages. A combined 500,000 people living in the US and Canada identify as Ojibwe people, but fewer than 100 native speakers remain in the US, and a few thousand in Canada – the majority of whom are elders, according to Anton Treuer, professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University.

When it comes to revitalizing language, even losing one speaker can have outsized consequences. Niiyogaabawiikwe recalled losing three revered elders in the same week.

“We’ve had devastating losses in terms of speakers, our elders and cultural leaders. It might be a dozen people, which doesn’t seem like a lot to the world. But when you’re an endangered language that’s like, five to 12 versions of a dictionary,” she said.

A history of conflict

Waadookodaading was born out of conflict. In 1974, two Lac Courte Oreilles tribal members were arrested for spearfishing off-reservation. Legal battles ensued, and in 1987 a federal judge affirmed the tribal members’ rights.

But the dispute triggered vitriol from mostly white, working-class residents who argued that tribal members were depleting lakes of trophy fish, threatening the tourism industry, despite data that showed otherwise. As tribal members launched boats to fish, crowds would hurl racist attacks, flatten the tires of their vehicles and threaten violence.

“They were angry and ignorant of treaty rights,” said Larry Nesper, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who witnessed some of the confrontations. “I heard one person say, ‘I’m poor, I’ve got a crappy education, I don’t have a lot of nice things, but at least I’m not a damn Indian.’”

Protesters gather at a northern Wisconsin boat landing in the late 1980s.
Protesters gather at a northern Wisconsin boat landing in the late 1980s. Photograph: Courtesy Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission

The supremacy espoused by white mobs had a long historical precedent. For more than 100 years, the US government operated Indian boarding schools, one of many efforts to assimilate children into white society. The Hayward Indian school just outside the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation taught Ojibwe children until the 1930s. Staff at the overcrowded facility changed children’s names, cut off their braids, and forbade them from speaking Ojibwe.

The events of the 1980s sparked a resurgence of revitalization efforts, Nesper said.

It also led to institutional changes, including the creation of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission – a wildlife and conservation group representing 11 Ojibwe tribes – and a mandate that Wisconsin schools teach the history of people indigenous to the state, including treaty rights. And it generated momentum for a school like Waadookodaading.

“It was the local iteration of the global Indigenous rights movement,” said Nesper. “It led to a rebirth and rediscovery of identity for people who had been the David in this David-versus-Goliath fight.”

‘One thing we know how to do is survive’

Waadookodaading has grown from a group of eight kindergarteners taught in a modular trailer to a program that ends in eighth grade, with plans for a high school under way. From the earliest ages, students are taught in Ojibwe, learning the basic tools of literacy and math in their traditional language.

In a typical year, every school day begins at the tobacco pole outside the classroom. Each morning a new student opens the day with a talk in Ojibwe, a kind of prayer, and an offering of tobacco. As students get older and progress through the program, the prayers become more elaborate and eloquent.

“For our students, every day is a ceremony,” said Niiyogaabawiikwe, the school’s director. “The offering is an acknowledgement that we’re not alone, and we need help today to focus on what we’re doing.”

The school’s curriculum hits state and federal content standards, but the school approaches them in their own way. Harvesting wild rice each fall lends itself to lessons on calculating volume. It also contains historical teachings: it was the search for wild rice that first pushed the Ojibwe people from their lands on the Atlantic coast to the Great Lakes region of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, where most members live today.

Snowshoe lessons begin in kindergarten. By third grade, students know how to identify animal tracks, preparation for the rite of passage of snaring a snowshoe hare – a traditional source of meat in the winter that carries symbolic meaning: now that the child has become a hunter, they are providers for the tribal members who can’t hunt themselves.

Students are lucky to snare one hare. Makoons Quagon, a fifth-grader, has snared three. He cleaned and ate them. “The first one was really exciting,” he said. “Some of the others are really sensitive about animals, but once it’s dead, it doesn’t bother me.”

In winter, ice fishing trips to the frozen lakes give kids the chance to learn anatomy from the fish they catch, debone and eat. In keeping with Ojibwe custom, students learn to be good stewards of the natural world.

“Each fish has a life. And we respect that life and give thanks for it,” Niiyogaabawiikwe said.

All of these experiences transferred imperfectly to an online environment. Most students don’t speak Ojibwe at home, which means they missed the immersive language experience that best builds fluency. Internet access remains spotty in the remote reaches of the northwoods. Two students transferred out of Waadookodaading early in the year because they couldn’t access the internet from their homes. And YouTube is a poor substitute for the learning that happens in the forests or on the water.

“How do you digitize a trip to the lake?” said Behzig Hunter, a fifth-grade teacher.

Confined to the unilateral interactions of Zoom meetings, Hunter worried most about the loss of the language community. Exposed to fewer speakers, students’ Ojibwe were sounding too much like hers. “To a T,” she said.

When students normally leave a program like Waadookodaading, they’re bilingual and reap the cognitive benefits that bestows. Disrupting the sequence of language development, however, complicates the progression.

The change has been hard for teachers, too. Out of 25 educators, 23 are Ojibwe. But because most are not native speakers, their language also needs maintenance, she said.

“Everybody is doing the best they can, but it’s a big hit for language acquisition,” Hunter said.

The next day, on the trip to the woods, Hunter holds her cell phone high, so students couldn’t make the trip and could take part through Zoom. None of it is ideal, Hunter said, but they’re making it work.

“It might take a minute, but the language will come back and it will stay with them,” Hunter said. “One thing Ojibwe know how to do is survive. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Revitalizing Ojibwe goes beyond preserving a language for posterity, said Treuer, the Bemidji State professor.

For Ojibwe children, it offers an opportunity to ground themselves in the cultural heritage that’s inextricably linked to language.

“When people know who they really are, and have a chance to heal from their historical and contemporary traumas, then you see some major changes across society,” Treuer said.

A culturally-affirming approach like the one at Waadookodaading also offers an alternative to the current public school system, in which roughly half of all American Indian students don’t graduate high school.

It’s no coincidence that the states where white children post the highest test scores are also the states where children of color score lowest, Treuer said.

“The whiter the state, the whiter the curriculum, the whiter the body of teachers, the better the white students do, and the worst everybody else does. We cannot have an educational system that is a white empowerment program, and that’s what we have.”

At Waadookodaading, by contrast, not a single student has dropped out, according to the school’s tracking.

Makoons Quagon, a fifth-grader at Waadookodaading, shovels snow in preparation for collecting sap to make maple syrup.
Makoons Quagon, a fifth-grader at Waadookodaading, shovels snow in preparation for collecting sap to make maple syrup. Photograph: Mario Koran/The Guardian

Saving a culture

Elders such as Lee Obizaan Staples, 75, play a crucial role in Waadookodaading, assisting in the classroom, sometimes correcting the Ojibwe of teachers or coining new words when a modern concept needs an Ojibwe descriptor.

Staples grew up across the border in Minnesota. He was taken in by an Ojibwe family at four months old, and was taught the language and ceremonies of his ancestors. But he could barely relate to the world around him. If his people were mentioned at all on TV or in books, it was a one-dimensional stereotype, a Hollywood caricature of the American Indian, he said.

As he made his way through public school, where he confronted hostility toward Native Americans, the feeling of invisibility drove him to excel. “I knew I was different. Because of my upbringing, (my experience) was totally different from the outside world. As a result, I had a certain amount of anger. I was bound and determined to show up the white kids.”

Today, when it comes time to send spirits into the next world, a venerated role that must be led in Ojibwe, Staples is the funeral’s master of ceremonies. When Staples ventures out, tribal members form a protective bubble to keep him safe from the virus.

Language can be saved. Thirty years ago, it was illegal to use the Native Hawaiin language in public schools. At one point, fewer than 1,000 speakers existed, and half of them lived in one isolated island community of Ni’ihau, Treuer said.

Today, thanks to revitalization efforts, there are roughly 22,000 speakers of native Hawaiian, including about 3,000 who speak the language at home. Twenty-two schools teach in the language. It’s now one of the state’s official languages. Other indigenous groups, like the Māori of New Zealand and Blackfeet tribe of Montana, have established successful language programs.

Due in large part to Waadookodaading, which has added 100 highly proficient speakers to the community, Lac Courte Oreilles tribal members no longer worry the language will die off locally.

“We’ve turned a corner. The question now is how to best accelerate the growth of Ojibwe,” said Sullivan.

On the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation, signs outside the county market advertise images of food next to their Ojibwe descriptor – part of a campaign to increase access and visibility of the language. For Staples, the normalization of Ojibwe, and the emergence of young speakers, brings relief.

“It’s a good feeling to know there are people who can carry on these ceremonies without me,” Staples said.

“We’ve had devastating losses. It might be a dozen people, which doesn’t seem like a lot. But when you’re an endangered language that’s like, five to 12 versions of a dictionary,” said Niiyogaabawiikwe, Waadookodaading’s director.
“We’ve had devastating losses. It might be a dozen people, which doesn’t seem like a lot. But when you’re an endangered language that’s like, five to 12 versions of a dictionary,” said Niiyogaabawiikwe, Waadookodaading’s director. Photograph: Courtesy of Jenny Schlender

Meanwhile, back in the woods, Waadookodaading director Niiyogaabawiikwe said that while her fears of Covid haven’t evaporated, school leaders feel it’s safe enough to return to the classroom in late-March now that infection rates are down and a growing portion of teachers and tribal members have been vaccinated.

She’s encouraged by history, and how times of sickness or war were often followed by times of healing, symbolized through items like the jingle dress, an Ojibwe garment said to have been created during the pandemic of 1918 that brings healing powers to those who are sick.

“When we finally get to gather as a community, I think we need to remember to be thankful for each other, to take better care of each other and be more patient,” she said. “We can’t lose sight of that, because it’s the only thing that can sustain us.”

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