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'Not Just Words': As First-Language Ojibwe Speakers Dwindle, A Look Inside Efforts To Save The Language

Originally published March 10, 2022

HINCKLEY, Minn. (WCCO) -- The option to learn Ojibwe will now be accessible to everyone, following the release of a never-before-seen language learning program in partnership with Rosetta Stone.

Baabiitaw Boyd, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, has spent years working in the language revitalization realm.

Despite Boyd's heritage, the Ojibwe language wasn't necessarily a part of everyday life during her childhood. In 2003, she began to learn the language in a college classroom. From there, she entered a master apprenticeship, learning the language from fluent speakers.

Since that time, the number of self-identified fluent speakers has dropped dramatically.

"There were 145 identified identifiable fluent speakers [in 2005]," Boyd said. "Today, we're at 20."

Boyd and a team began to search for a solution to preserve the language, and from there a collaboration was formed.

"We recruited a committee of second-language learners and scholars to come together and talk about what are the biggest strategies or the biggest tools that we can create with," Boyd said. "Rosetta Stone seemed to be the most the most relevant tool."

WEB EXTRA: 4 Ojibwe Words To Know, From WCCO's Cole Premo

Through Rosetta Stone's Endangered Language's Program, Ojibwe -- and the Mille Lacs Band's dialect -- is now free to learn for all Natives.

On March 1, a paid program became available for non-Native members.


"The Ojibwe language is a polysynthetic language, so it's verb-based," Boyd said. "Being that it's verb based, the way that the language is structured, you can make changes to the word so that you can turn verbs into nouns. And so our language is very descriptive."

More so than that, Ojibwe classifies articles not by gender, but uses "living" and "non-living" designations.

"You would be surprised at all of the things in our world in our worldview that are alive," Boyd said. "Snow is alive. Trees are alive. Drums are alive. Raspberries are alive, but strawberries aren't. It's very interesting."

More so, the language is intertwined with Ojibwe culture, traditions and heritage.

"We have ceremonies that have been given to us as Anishinaabe people from birth, through our lifespan, to our passing," Boyd said. "With that we've been given these rituals, songs and these particular prescribed talks, or styles of talking, that help us nurture ourselves and nurture our spirit and connect us to our deities."

The language's disappearance is tied to Mille Lacs Band children's forced attendance at government-run boarding schools from the 1800s on, where children were prevented from speaking their native language.

"There's generations of this imposed language and social dynamics that are foreign to us as Anishinaabe people," Boyd said. "The mainstream education and the language in which it's taught, that is the language of commerce, business and government."

Rosetta Stone Ojibwe
(credit: Rosetta Stone)

Boyd says through the language learning program, members of the Mille Lacs Band will be able to reclaim part of their identities.

"We are rebuilding and redesigning through language. We can build self-esteem, self-confidence, a sense of identity … Without the language, that doesn't happen, and that doesn't happen very well. And we've kind of, we've done our best for generations like functioning in English and practicing Western ways of doing things and Western societal expectations, but ultimately, our spirit is yearning for like Anishinaabe connections, and Anishinaabe practices of values," she said. "Just having a foundation of language … it just widens your scope so that you can see things and experience things at a much deeper level as far as whether they need to be advocated for, protected, supported. When you are rooted and have a healthy connection to who you are, you are kind of coming out the gate a little more prepared to deal with the struggles of life."


Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin and Elder Bill Premo both speak Ojibwemowin fluently.

"It's who we are as Anishinaabe, and I've been told many, many times by elders we were placed on this earth as Anishinaabe, and that is our way of life," Benjamin said. "I think the biggest gift is the language. Because if you think about the language, it has all of the knowledge within it and it has the value system."

Both Boyd and Premo say in order to understand the Ojibwe culture, one must understand the language.

"Our words are not just words. They're phrases. And each aspect of the word really, if you break it down, means something. That's how that connection to our ancestors and our connections to the future happens," Benjamin said. "We're losing the people that we didn't know spoke the language."

Premo says he sees the Rosetta Stone program as an opportunity to leave behind a legacy.

"To help the generations to come to remember the way we sounded, the way we talked in the ceremonies and the language we use at those ceremonies," Premo said. "I always thought that would be something, you know, a lot greater than just myself to leave something behind."

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