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Saving the language: School immerses students by teaching Ojibwe

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Students in the Niigaane Ojibwemowin Immersion School, a K-6 school within the Bug O Nay Ge Shig School on the Leech Lake Reservation near Bena, know what it feels to be movie stars.

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They were featured on "First Speakers: Restoring the Ojibwe Language," a documentary by Twin Cities Public Television that was recently honored with a Regional Emmy Award.

"First Speakers" follows the efforts of a new generation of Ojibwe scholars and educators attempting to save one of Minnesota's native languages.

Anton Treuer, historian, author and professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University, is also featured in documentary. He estimates there are fewer than 1,000 fluent Ojibwe speakers left in the United States.

The Emmy award is traveling to all of the sites featured in the documentary. It has been at the Niigaane School since November and on Friday students and staff said goodbye to the award.

The award will travel next to BSU, and later the Red Lake Reservation, among other places.

"It was pretty exciting for some of the kids to see," said Leslie Harper, director of the Niigaane program.

The Bug O Nay Ge Shig School was founded in 1975 as an alternative school to serve 35 Ojibwe students from the Leech Lake Reservation. The school was started in response to parents' concerns that public schools were not meeting the students' academic and cultural needs.

The Niigaane Ojibwe Immersion School was developed in 2003 to revitalize the Ojibwe language on the Leech Lake Reservation.

"First Speakers" takes viewers inside the Ojibwe immersion school, and filmed students being taught materials entirely in the Ojibwe language and within the values and traditional practices of the Ojibwe culture.

"We want to legitimize the language," Harper said. "For years people have been asking 'what's the point?' If we make it necessary to assist in this institution, then it really legitimizes our language. No one should be able to tell us our language can't perform well."

Harper said what makes the Niigaane school so unique is how involved families become when a student is enrolled.

"We get to know the entire family," she said. "Families come in and participate in activities. They are trying to revitalize the language."

Each family must serve eight hours of volunteer time per month to help improve the school, Harper said.

Currently the Niigaane school has 30 students enrolled in grades K-6. Last year, three students graduated from the immersion school. Harper said as sixth-graders they are fluent speakers of Ojibwe.

"Multilingualism helps build the brain in a lot of different ways," she said. "It helps develop cognitive skills, social skills and self-reliance."

Adrian Liberty, a teacher and co-founder of the Niigaane School, was also featured in the documentary. He said he thoroughly enjoyed the exposure.

"I'm very proud of what we've done," he said of the school. "I think we've shown a small glimpse of what's possible if we believe in ourselves as a people."

Liberty said the Ojibwe language can teach people what that the Ojibwe people have to offer this world.

"Everything that is spoken of in our language comes from earth we are walking on," he added. "It teaches us how to be humble. Language can teach us to celebrate how different and yet how the same we are as people."

He encourages members of the public to stop into the school to see how they operate and what the students are learning.

The film premiered November 2010 on Twin Cities Public Television and on local Minnesota Public Television stations.

"We want to help encourage others to work toward language proficiency," Harper said. "We want to encourage others to learn a language, too, and help them understand it's a long hard road, but good people are willing to support them."

For details about the documentary, visit www.tpt.org/?a=productions&id=3.

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