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Don Davis, Published April 06 2009

Indian leaders, Minnesota lawmakers try to save languages

ST. PAUL – American Indian leaders fear their native languages are being lost, calling the situation a crisis.

“When a person passes away, it is like a whole dictionary that is gone,” Lillian Rice told a Minnesota House committee.

A Native American’s language “is the very sense of who we are. ... Without that, we are lost,” she said.

Indian leaders are working to save languages, and now the Minnesota Legislature is considering helping the cause. Bills to establish a state-tribal organization to look into the issue are being considered, along with providing $150,000.

The group would work with the state’s 11 tribes to preserve the Ojibwe (Chippewa) and Dakota (Sioux) languages.

“These languages are very much in danger of being lost,” warned Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji.

Rice, who works with a Minneapolis-based Indian language program, speaks Pottawattamie, Ojibwe and English. But many Indians, especially youth, do not speak their native tongues.

Lillian Stand, like Rice a Wicoie Nandagikendan language program worker, said her parents were punished for speaking Ojibwe, so she did not teach it to her children.

“I regret that very much,” she said.

Now her grandchildren are learning Ojibwe, she said.

“The real issue is our elders are getting beyond their years; they are not going to be here that much longer,” she said. “I believe it is an urgency that we need to keep our culture going.”

The issue is so serious that Chairman Floyd Jourdain Jr. discussed it in his recent state of the tribe address to the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation.

“Our Ojibwe language is officially in a state of crisis,” Jourdain said. “We estimate that there are as few as 300 fluent language speakers remaining within our tribe. Our official tribal enrollment number is 9,397 members.”

His tribe, like many others, is working on the issue, with a recent study resulting in a five-year plan to protect the language.

“This brings us one step closer to establishing a language immersion program on the reservation focusing on children and families,” he said.

But Native Americans talking to legislative committees said coordination is needed, including with the state education system.

“We are all re-creating the wheel,” said Marisa Carr, who has translated school books into Dakota and Ojibwe.

Carr said only one person can speak her particular Indian dialect.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization calls the Ojibwe-Chippewa language “severely endangered,” with only 8,000 people who speak it, mostly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Dakota is in a bit better shape, with a future called “unsafe” and 25,000 speakers. It is used on at least 15 United States and Canadian Indian reservations.

Turning the tide is the goal of legislative bills sponsored by Olson and Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley.

The bills’ bottom line is to create an inventory of existing language programs on the 11 Minnesota reservations, including school curriculum, and to find ways to spread Indian language education.

Eken, who for years taught American history, said the state’s history is important, whether it relates to European immigrants, Native Americans or others. It is easy to take many foreign language classes in schools across the state, he said, but not the two major native languages.

Olson said preserving the languages should be important to all Minnesotans.

The Bemidji senator said she first learned of the problem two years ago while visiting a language school on the Leech Lake reservation. It was a “made-over machine shed” inadequate for a school, she said.

While problems such as that may need to be addressed, Olson said, the bill now being considered takes the first step – figuring out what resources are available and how to begin fixing the problem.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com