Bayfield School Superintendent Beth Paap, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, recalls the stories her grandmother told of how Native American children were ripped away from their parents to be sent away to boarding schools, where they were beaten if they spoke in their native tongue — Ojibwemowin.
“It was truly a devastating reality,” said Paap.
And that reality has lingered to this day, when only one or two members of the Red Cliff Band remain fluent in the language.
“That is the straits we are in,” said Tribal Historic Preservation Office Director Marvin DeFoe. “At the same time there has been a passion — how can we survive with our language?”
Tribal members have been working for years to change that, to reclaim their traditional way of communicating through language camps for Red Cliff children and other efforts. The Red Cliff Band is taking those efforts a giant step further now with a new Ojibwemowin training program that will offer six community members the opportunity to take part in a 33-month course to become fluent enough in Ojibwemowin to act as teachers — in fact, trained well enough to it a career. The students will be paid employees of the tribe as they learn the language, funded by $900,000 in grant money.
DeFoe said the project grew out of collaborations with the Bad River language-training program and the School District of Bayfield.
“Supporting the revitalization of our language is key to survival of our people and the next generations to come,” Red Cliff Vice Chairman Nathan Gordon said.
Nothing is more vital to a culture’s identity than its language. That’s one reason Indian boarding schools tried to beat it out of their students — their philosophy articulated in 1892 by Capt. Richard Pratt in his speech on the re-education of Native kids: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
The Red Cliff training hopes to save both.
“It is intended to revitalize and recapture the spirit of our language,” Gordon said. “We realized if we were going to have our language survive, we needed language teachers. What we are faced with is having to undo Indian policy that has been inflicted on the history of our people.”
The consequences of the policy to eliminate their native tongue continue to this day, said Paap, but the Ojibwe people are determined that Ojibwemowin will survive.
“We are revitalizing who we are; we are able to come out of that time in a very empowering way and use our resilience and energy to reacquire our Ojibwemowin. Language is culture, and so part of this revitalization for Red Cliff has been learning again cultural practices in many forms,” Paap said
Teachers fluent in the language are important for the school system said Paap, but simply learning the language is not enough. Being able to pass that learning on, to teach students to use the language, is crucial and one of the reasons the three-year course is being created.
Students will not necessarily be teachers already, said Edwina Buffalo-Reyes, known by her Ojibwe name as Ziigwanike, assistant director of the Red Cliff Tribal Historic Preservation Office
“They are community members; anyone can apply,” she said. “We are hoping to get a teacher certification piece in there so they can teach in the schools.”
Buffalo-Reyes said the course was not intended to create linguists, but to give teachers the skills to be able to pass along what they have learned to their students — both children and adults.
“After three years, we are hoping that they are proficient, proficient in holding conversations, proficient in teaching others. I don’t know that we will get fluency in three years, but they will be proficient,” she said.
Paap noted that many of the students in the Bayfield School District are Native Americans and having fluent teachers in the school will send an important message to all students.
“It will be a shining example of the importance of Ojibwe culture and language as a valuable academic pursuit,” she said. “Having our students see Ojibwemowin teachers in their school will also allow them to see people like them in leadership positions as teachers or administrators. It is also exemplifying what public schools are supposed to be; schools of the community.”
DeFoe said when word came to him that Red Cliff had received grant funding to pay for the classes, tears came to his eyes.
“There is so much hope in this, hope that we can survive as a people, and the key is learning our language,” he said.