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Teaching the 'lost language'; New teacher of the Ojibwe Learning and Native American Culture class is all about the students

Students at the Detroit Lakes High School get together at a field trip to a Wild Rice finishing mill near Mahnomen to talk about the Ojibwe language and culture.1 / 3
Mike Dahl taught his students about the Native American culture while on a field trip to a Wild Rice finishing mill near Mahnomen.2 / 3
Michael Dahl's Detroit Lakes Ojibwe class took a class trip to a Wild Rice finishing mill near Mahnomen on September 16.3 / 3

On the first day of school Michael Dahl, teacher of the Ojibwe Learning and Native American Culture class, says to his students in the Ojibwe language, "Aapichii Miigwech gigiipi'izhaam Hmaa!!", which translates to "thank you very much for coming here."

Dahl, who is a new teacher at Detroit Lakes High School, teaches three different Ojibwe courses; Introduction to Ojibwe and Native Studies, Ojibwe 1, and Ojibwe Art.

Joe Carrier, Native American Education Coordinator, and Sue Holt, College Readiness Coordinator, proposed the Ojibwe Language program to the school board, which they say would help meet the needs for Native American students at the school. Sixty thousand dollars was earmarked to fund the curriculum and language teacher position, with the idea to get the program started.

But finding a teacher for this very specific class would prove to be tough, but Carrier says as board members walked out of the meeting believing the program wouldn't happen that year, one of the school receptionists had the news they'd been waiting for. She told them that an application came in for the position, and Michael Dahl was the applicant.

"It was a process getting him here, but we are thankful he was able to join us," laughs High School Principal Darren Wolf. "It was a quick turn-around."

"We have one of five fluent language, culture, history, and traditional teachers out of 19,000 members of the White Earth Reservation teaching here," Carrier said, "and once the kids grasp that, it will carry how they learn the language and how they want to come to school and go to class."

Dahl not only teaches "indigenous students" (Native American) but he also teaches "non-indigenous" students or non-Native Americans.

Dahl says the Ojibwe language is tougher on the indigenous students because it puts more pressure on them to be like their grandparents and know the language, where for the non-indigenous students it's just a language that broadens their horizons.

"To speak our (Native American) language and to learn our (Native American) language is connected to our identity," says Dahl.

Carrier says he wants students to build on their identity through themselves and through the class that Dahl teaches.

"My vision is to see kids really connect to the value of Mike Dahl and understand what we have here and really get it," says Carrier.

"It's incredibly empowering having these kids learn the language," says Dahl, who wants his students to take the language and what they are learning in the class outside the school.

"I can teach anyone how to speak and understand Ojibwe in a classroom, but to take it outside--that's what I want," he said.

Dahl says this came true when one of his students told him a story of something that happened while she was working at Central Market in Detroit Lakes.

She said was checking an Ojibwe man's groceries out, and when she gave him his receipt she said in the Ojibwe language "have a good day", and according to her, he turned around, gave her a huge smile, and said something back in Ojibwe as well.

Dahl says this is what he really wants out of his class; he hopes the kids and the community embrace their diversity.

"That shows me that the language is going to survive no matter what, whether we do or not," Dahl continues, "and the kids are part of something monumental."

Dahl says his students "not only embrace what they are learning, but ask for more and embrace each other".

"My goal is to create students that they are going to behave out there in the world the same way they behave in the classroom," he said.

While Wolf says the school's goal is to connect the students to things that they are engaged with and be excited about learning, he hopes this class is a way to "do something for them that lets them know they are valued and important."

Dahl says it starts with what tools are offered and what capabilities and strengths the students have, then it goes onto their dreams and goals, and then lastly the students try to figure out their weaknesses and how to fix those weaknesses.

Dahl says the support from the staff that was given to him when he first started made him feel like he's been working there for years, and he's grateful for the help his fellow teachers have given and continue to give to him.

"I love teaching, it's my passion," Dahl says with a smile on his face. "Not everybody who can speak the language can teach, and not everybody who can teach can speak (the language)."

His way of teaching is that he's sharing what he's been told, and he's putting the thoughts on paper and getting it into action for the students.

"It's not about the money, it's about the kids, the community, the opportunity, and about creating something that's bigger than us," says Dahl.

For more information on the Ojibwe course or to get involved contact Joe Carrier at jcarrier@detlakes.k12.mn.us.

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