School of Arts & Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Revitalizing the Ojibwe Language

Determined to preserve indigenous languages, Native people, including the Ojibwe have launched a range of initiatives to strengthen the connection between culture and language in the life of their community members. Among the efforts of the Ojibwe are language immersion programs, language courses and events that require mandatory knowledge of the language. Initially, language immersion programs functioned as second language learning programs, but they have since evolved to accommodate the unique necessities of learning native languages. For example, while immersion programs for other languages require that speakers of the language surround the learner, indigenous language learners could not afford the luxury because in many cases communities lacked enough speakers to “immerse” them in the language. Acknowledging that this was the very problem that needed solving, instructors crafted curriculums that included religious community events, uniting people that speak the language and those who are trying to learn it. These events would also immerse the students in the culture in addition to the language, strengthening that important connection. Moreover, events such as a Quiz bowl for Ojibwe high school students provided additional incentive for learning. Having distinguished indigenous language learning from tradition second language learning programs, current efforts still have hurdles to overcome before they can be fully successful.

Among the most difficult obstacles in learning and teaching Ojibwe specifically, are the lack of writing standards and community disagreements regarding the need for writing and selectivity of potential stories. There is no standard way of writing the Ojibwe language even within communities. As a result, there is no standard way of teaching and students currently learn a range of spelling and grammar rules that differ from instructor to instructor. Not only is this clearly a problem for proper communication, it also prevents tracking progress in a systematic way and developing wide reaching curriculums and materials, like textbooks. Which raises another question in Ojibwe communities: Should the language be written at all? As mentioned above, the language shares sacred stories with messages of healing, among others, directed at its listeners. Therefore many Ojibwe people believe that writing down these stories would dilute their power as well as harm he oral tradition. On the other hand, communities members who worry about the sheer existence of the language, especially those in dire need of revitalization, embrace writing and many are working with linguists to develop standardize writing for their languages. Meanwhile, many of those who appose writing oppose the wide availability and destruction of their language. Many believe that only Ojbiwe people were the only ones meant language and It should be available to be learned by just anyone. But while people disagree on these matters, the majority believes that Ojibwe language learning needs to happen outside of the classroom, at home and in the community. Not only is this the traditional way, this is he only way to make he language relevant and keeping it from becoming an object of study only.

Perhaps another way to make the language relevant, especially for young students, is to introduce modern teaching methods and materials, such as digital video. As shown in this essay, digital video footage of Ojibwe elders explaining concepts and telling stories is beyond description and allows the listener to engage with the storyteller and formulate an individual interpretation. Though it has its limitations, it is an undeniably more authentic way to share the oral tradition than though writing. Digital media allows these elders to speak for themselves instead of through intermediaries. And digital media can help bridge geographic and age gaps. It can engage young people easily, and it can be seen anywhere with internet availability. Video can be used to introduce Ojibwe concepts for example, with minimal descriptions for those who need them. In the following example, Ojibwe Langauge instructor, Dan Jones, explain Thunderbirds and his connection to them. 


Blessed by Thunderbirds, Dan Jones

The example above is simple and by all means a glimpse into what can be achieved through the combination of digital technologies and software to achieve the most authentic representations of the Oral Tradition in indigenous languages. The potential for this technology to aid in he expansion and increase access to courses of language but also culture is undeniable. Moreover, by engaging modern methods, it has the potential of engaging young generations and making the language relevant for use and practical to learn while maintaining the nuances of speaker and the respectful individualism of the listener. As proven by the contribution to these videos, it is a step that the Ojibwe people are ready to take. With the proper resources, and Internet availability in Native reservations, this technology is already enabling them to take strides toward a more sovereign indigenous culture.