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Associated Press, Published January 13 2012

Some Bemidji classrooms to get Ojibwe name signs

BEMIDJI, Minn. – Classrooms in the Bemidji School District are getting some new names – in Ojibwe.

Dozens of signs featuring words in Ojibwe are being made by five students at Bemidji High School and will placed throughout the school district.

A sign for the health office says “Aakoziiwigamigoons.” A cafeteria sign will read “Wisiniiwigamig.” And an art room sign will say “Mazinibii’igewigamig.”

The project is being funded by Bemidji’s Ojibwe Language Project, a branch of Shared Vision, a Bemidji group that’s working for friendlier relations be­tween American Indians and the majority culture.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Bemidji High School Principal Brian Stefanich said Friday. “I think it will benefit all of our students. We want to recognize all cultures and our Native American students are a big part of our high school.”

Other principals also thought the signs were a great idea but the district didn’t have the $2,000 needed for them. So project leaders Michael Meuers and Rachelle Houle raised most of the money from local businesses They also received a grant from Ojibwe scholar and Bemidji State University professor Anton Treuer, who has been helping Meuers and Houle find the correct Ojibwe words for the signs. They still need about $250 but were confident they’d get it.

The signs are made of a two-layered plastic. The lettering is engraved by machine. When the top layer is engraved, it exposes the bottom layer’s color. Teacher Bryan Hammit said students not only supervise the engraving machine, but also chose the fonts, colors and sizes of the signs.

Bemidji High School offers Ojibwe language classes, Stefanich said, but not all students and staff know or understand the language.

“I want all our students to feel welcome and feel comfortable at the high school,” he said.

Over the past year and a half, Meuers and Houle have been encouraging local businesses and organizations to install bilingual signage to increase awareness of the Ojibwe language in the community. Their original goal was to have 20 businesses participate. Today, nearly 150 sites in the Bemidji area have gone bilingual.

Noemi Aylesworth, owner of the Cabin Coffee House, was one of the first to participate. Her shop features table tent signs with numbers, animals and the nearby Red Lake tribe’s major clans listed in both English and Ojibwe.

Last year, Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College added bilingual signs across both campuses, including multimedia materials on Ojibwe translations for nearly 100 English phrases common to northern Minnesota.

Treuer also created audio clips that correctly pronounce words and phrases, first in Ojibwe and then in English.

Meuers said often people are not aware that Ojibwe predates European immigrant languages northern Minnesota. He said he is often asked why more emphasis is not placed on keeping the region’s Norwegian heritage alive.

“Ojibwe is the indigenous language of northern Minnesota,” he said. “Norwegian and German are imported languages. I want to help preserve the native language. When you lose a language, you lose culture. When you lose culture, who knows what you lose.”

Meuers said he Bemidji will become more like the state of Hawaii, where he said the native language is much more a part of the culture.

“This is going to show Indian people ‘You are welcome and respected in our community,’” Meuers said. “It’s going to teach non-Indian people about the culture that was here before 1895. And, also, tourists eat it up, so there’s also an economic benefit as well.”