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Lawmaker's plan would sustain, promote Dakota and Ojibwe languages

American Indian languages could become extinct unless renewed efforts to make Dakota and Ojibwe classroom subjects succeed, believes Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji.

And she apparently has Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren on her side, as a meeting is planned this week to set an agenda and formally establish a committee to study over the legislative interim how to sustain and promote language immersion programs.

"There are no textbooks written in the Ojibwe language, and that's a real lack in the immersion program," Olson said. "There's a real need that the immersion program has."

Olson authored a bill this past session that the state Board of Teaching establish a task force for language immersion programs for Dakota and Ojibwe language preservation.

Among provisions, the task force would "identify barriers to teacher licensing, teacher certification, fluency certification and licensing for pre-kindergarten through grade 12 Dakota and Ojibwe language programs."

The task force would focus on changes needed in licensure to ensure the continuation and development of Dakota and Ojibwe language immersion programs in U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs programs, charter schools, private schools, non-profit organizations and public schools in Minnesota.

The bill recognizes the responsibility of tribes in Minnesota to oversee the revitalization of Dakota and Ojibwe language in the state, and would ask the task force to identify strategies to ensure existing funding sources will be used for the immersion programs.

But providing licensed and certified teachers of Dakota and Ojibwe isn't enough, said Olson. A curriculum needs to be developed, backed up by proper materials and textbooks.

Olson said she held a meeting during the session's last days that included Seagren and members of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, to which Olson is a member, to talk about a wide range of American Indian language issues.

"One of the people who attended the meeting pointed out that there are only nine fluent Dakota speakers left in our state," Olson said. "There are fewer than 100 fluent Ojibwe speakers. So this is really at a crisis point in terms of preserving this language before it becomes extinct."

Providing for Dakota and Ojibwe language programs in Minnesota schools will not only help preserve the language, but also history itself, she said.

"It's not just important to the culture of American Indian people, but it's really an issue of national and statewide significance for everyone because it's part of our history of this country," the Bemidji Democrat said.

The group is slated to meet again Wednesday at the State Capitol to further discuss the issue, Olson said.

"We've made plans for another meeting, and we're going to put together a committee over the interim," she said. "This isn't anything where there's any public money going into it, it's just basically people who are interested who are volunteering their time to work on this project."

Many materials are handmade, but not universally available.

"There's a lot of work ongoing already, but no one is really aware of what everyone else is doing," Olson said. "The program down in the Twin Cities had a couple of really fantastic handmade stories that had been written and illustrated by a 17-year-old young lady. They copied that through their regular program."

There are some elders at Mille Lacs who have handmade some materials in Ojibwe about traditional medicines and plants and animals, she said. "But they haven't comfortable putting them out to the public yet until they are comfortable with how they will be treated. The tribe wants some control over how they will be utilized."

After pulling together the meeting two days before the Legislature adjourned, Olson said she "was delighted with the turnout we had.. We had a two-hour meeting and people were very excited, not only about just getting some publications -- there are actually some handmade materials that are already available -- but there's kind of a broader issue that has to do with language preservation and pulling together some of the different pieces that are already happening, making sure there is a central place to store this information."

The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council "wanted to make sure that the tribes have control over decisions that are made related to these things and the storing of these materials, and also the intellectual property rights -- that's actually a pretty significant part of this," she said.

The Minnesota Historical Society is also interested, she said.

An English major in college before going to law school, Olson said she wanted to "do something to address this issue because it seems like an important thing to do. ... I am really grateful to Commissioner Seagren for coming on such short notice (to the May meeting) and really supporting my goal to move this issue forward. She's going to give this high priority for next session."

While Olson's bill on teacher licensure and certification didn't move forward, the current effort is "different but related," she said.

"There are so many different components to this," Olson said. "One of them is working this into early childhood training, one is making sure that the texts are available."

She said someone at the meeting noted that in Hawaii, there are spots on television that just make people more aware of native Hawaiian words, vocabulary words.

"We see that with the Spanish language often, but we don't have anything like that for the languages that are unique to our country, and particularly to our state," Olson said.

She was, however, successful in having parts of another bill make it into law. The omnibus education policy bill provides that teacher preparation programs provide "instruction in historical and cultural competencies related to Minnesota American Indian tribes and communities and their contributions to Minnesota."

And the competencies related to Minnesota American Indian tribes and communities "must include, among other components, standards for instructional practices most effective for successfully teaching elementary and secondary American Indian students."