On Campus

Keeping the Ojibwe language alive, thriving

University of Michigan program has 150 students

The statistics might not be promising, but personal experience offers Brooke Simon hope that her ancestors’ language won’t disappear.

“I can walk down the street and hear someone yell ‘aanii!’ from across the street,” said the 20-year-old University of Michigan student, referring to a greeting in Ojibwe, or Anishinaabemowin. “Students aren’t afraid to use the language and learn about this language.”

Simon participates in the Ann Arbor university’s Program in Ojibwe Language and Literature, one of the largest of its kind in the nation. It seeks to teach and preserve the American Indian language spoken by about 10,000 in more than 200 communities across the Great Lakes region — but 80 per cent of them are older than 60.

“We are literally one generation away from losing it or bringing it forward,” said Margaret Noori, an instructor who coordinates the Ojibwe program. “That’s what makes it so endangered.”

About 150 students participate in the program, which includes language and literature classes. The program also holds a weekly “language nest” on campus for students and others in the community to speak Ojibwe.

Simon, who is majoring in American culture and English with a focus on Native American studies, is joined at the meetings by her mother, Shirley Fox-Simon, of Macomb County’s Clinton Township. Simon said she was drawn to the university in part because of the Ojibwe program as she attempts to reconnect with her past.

“My father’s parents spoke the language fluently around him. Over time they all spoke English and it was lost,” said Simon, who hopes to teach on a tribal reservation. “My mom was taught words from her family but she wasn’t able to maintain or use it much. “It’s important for me to get it back because I myself want to be able to speak my language.”

Simon said it’s just as important to keep the Ojibwe culture alive, and she served on the planning committee for the 36th annual Ann Arbor Dance for Mother Earth Pow Wow. Singers, dancers and drummers gathered last month for the powwow designed to celebrate American Indian heritage.

The Ojibwe program and powwow both started in 1973 at the height of the American Indian Movement, when student activists in Michigan and elsewhere sought to rid universities of culturally insulting practices and create native studies programs. Activists demanded that the university formally recognize its historical relationship with American Indians.

As part of the Treaty of Fort Meigs in 1817, the Ojibwe and other tribes gave 2,000 acres to create the university in its original Detroit location. In exchange, tribal leaders stated their wish that their children would be educated at the university.

A lawsuit filed against the university in 1971 alleged the treaty created a trust guaranteeing the education of tribal members and their descendants. Courts later found the university had no legal obligation to them, though the case appeared to be a catalyst for the passage of the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver Program in 1976.

An essay on the university’s Native American Studies Web site said the school since has begun to acknowledge its ethical obligation to American Indians. In November 2002, the university formally dedicated a plaque on campus commemorating the treaty.

In a larger sense, Noori sees the Ojibwe program as part of the effort to fully live up to the promises the school made to tribal leaders. Before she joined the program in 2006, she said it had only about 30 students and one instructor, Irving “Hap” McCue, who helped to create the program and saw it add two instructors before his death in early March.

“He was not able alone to push for proficiency or fluency in the language … but he got it started and inspired many of us,” said Noori, a student of McCue’s 15 years ago. “I could see that if I wanted to save our language, my generation needed to do more.”

Noori said one way to do that is to teach Ojibwe as a modern language, not as a museum piece. She saw it working recently in one of her classes, when students wanted to know the Ojibwe word for black people. Noori told them it was “mkade-aase,” which translates to “black skin.”

Noting that it was as offensive as referring to American Indians as “redskins,” the students suggested the word for black people could incorporate the word for Americans, “chimookiman.” But they balked when they learned that translates to “the ones with long knives,” reflecting past violence by whites against American Indians.

They eventually came up with “mkade-bmizidjig,” or “the ones who live in a black way.”

“(The students) said, It’s not the color of our skin, it’s a way of life,” said Noori, a Minnesota native of American Indian heritage. “Being a modern use of our language, words can be introduced. … That’s what moves our language forward.”

In that spirit, Noori said she could envision a day when the way to describe Americans evolves along with improving attitudes and actions. For instance, she could see Michiganders become known as “the ones who like the woods with us,” or “the ones who protect the ground with us.”

“Those are the questions we hope to equip our children to answer,” she said.

– with a report from AP

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