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An Ojibwe language revival

Children gather around Brandan Melina, 6, center, as he reads some words in Ojibwe from a flash book teachers at the Mahnomen Child Care Center use to help students learn the language. Photo by - Brian Basham1 / 3
Madison Fairbanks, 4, counts from one to nine in Ojibwe with a little help from a book teachers at the Mahnomen Child Care Center are using to teach native children the language. Photo by - Brian Basham2 / 3
Teachers are using flash cards and pictures to help themselves and students learn Ojibwe. Photo by - Brian Basham3 / 3

There's no arguing the fact that the Ojibwe language is a dying one.

"It's in the critical stages of being a language lost," said Assistant Education Director for the White Earth Reservation, Mary Otto, who says very few people on White Earth speak the language now, and most of those that do are elders.

But all that could soon be changing.

"What's that?" asked Tiffany Thompson, one of the teachers at the Mahnomen Childcare Learning Center, as she pointed to a picture of a horse.

"Bebeshigoooanzhii," said 4-year-old Madison Fairbanks of Mahnomen.

Little Madison is only one of dozens of children who are now being taught the Ojibwe language.

The reservation has received a state grant from the Minnesota Legacy Fund that is starting up a program to not just teach Ojibwe words, but to actually begin teaching young students how to speak it in sentence form.

The movement to resurrect the old language is beginning with two groups of people -- teachers and pre-schoolers.

A language software program similar to Rosetta Stone has been downloaded on V-Tech devices, Ipads and Ipods throughout the seven Boys and Girls Clubs, six Head Starts and two licensed daycares on the reservation.

"In partnership with Grassroots Indigenous Media, we now have coordinated words and phrases, custom-made flashcards and posters, and it's all the same curriculum everywhere you go on the reservation, so that students can transfer from one community to the next and still have that consistency while learning the language," said Otto, who says Ojibwe words have always been taught to students on the reservation, but this is different in that it is teaching them how to actually have a conversation so that they may one day be fluent.

Forty early childhood instructors are also on board in the effort, as they are attending training sessions every couple of months and skyping once a week with an Ojibwe language instructor from the University of Minnesota who is teaching them.

"I knew a little bit going into this, but not much," said Thompson, who is herself excited to learn her native language.

"And the kids absolutely love it," she said, "We do motions with them as we talk, we sing songs in Ojibwe, and I just can't believe how quickly they catch on."

In fact, it's their young ages that make these pre-school children the chosen ones to help keep the Ojibwe language alive.

"In early childhood, the language acquisition is easier, and so they were the pilot," said Otto, who says the goal is to grow the curriculum with this group of students as they grow.

"We're building a scope and sequence so that when they enter the school system, we've got a curriculum ready that they can continue with."

And while education leaders on the reservation are still in the early learning stages of how this language program will all roll out, they are currently applying for a federal grant that would help them build a real, standardized, school-aged curriculum for the children.

Until then, it will be baby steps towards an important piece of cultural revitalization for White Earth members like little Madison, who happily sings the Ojibwe version of "The Clean Up" song at circle time.

"Biinichigen, Biinichigen..." she sings, not realizing just how important she and her classmates could be the Ojibwe history books.