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Minneapolis immersion school teaches Ojibwe language in effort to preserve culture

Ojibwe immersion school aims to preserve the language
Ojibwe immersion school aims to preserve the language 04:00

MINNEAPOLIS -- Languages that once dominated the Midwest are disappearing, but there's a school in Minneapolis trying to change that, starting with the youngest of learners.

Liz Zinsli is part of the movement to revitalize Ojibwe, and refrains from speaking English to her students in the classroom at Wicoie Nandagikendan. It's part of her philosophy: let her students live in the language and live in their culture.

"We'll smudge to open things up for the day and we talk about things like the name of the month in Ojibwe," she said.

The language is woven into the way she's teaching her students about the world. She brings in wild game -  fish and deer - and dried sunflower seeds, all in an effort to help produce happier, healthy students.


"Any time we speak our language, any time we eat our foods, it's an act of resistance. It's an acknowledgement that we have survived a genocide," Jewell Arcoren, Executive Director of Wicoie Nandagikendan. "You are better off if you have that really strong foundation of where you are from, who is your people, what's your language."

Hiring Dakota language instructors poses its own challenges. The University of Minnesota estimates there are as few as 1,000 native speakers of Ojibwe in the United States. 

Before Zinsli was hired, the school could not find an Ojibwe teacher, which is why they started an apprentice program for teachers like Karissa Ficken. 

For her, seeing students pick up the language and use it is her motivation. She sees students like her daughter - the youngest child in the school - pick up the language and use it.

"Our work is paying off," Ficken said. "We're doing god here."

For the students and the teachers, it's not just about language revitalization. It's about connection to culture and identity.

"You're reconnecting with your true identity as an Anishnaabe person," said Ficken.

"There were generations where this wasn't an opportunity, but now this is becoming more of a realistic opportunity for people," said Zinsli. "So I think it's a beautiful thing."

Wicoie Nandagikendan is a feeding program into the Bdote Learning Center. Beyond that, Arcoren says some high schools and the University of Minnesota offer Dakota and Ojibwe as well.

The school is looking for a Dakota language teacher. 

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