Technology provides Ojibwe language a lifeline

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 2, 2012 - 12:16 AM

The University of Minnesota is launching an online Ojibwe dictionary, with hopes it will help preserve the language few still speak.

Hope Flanagan, whose Ojibwe name is Wicoie Nandagikendan, consulted a 1994 dictionary when she asked others at an Ojibwe speaking group in south Minneapolis to help her find the words for “holds on to.” A new online Ojibwe dictionary being launched next week will include links that will allow people to listen to the voices of native speakers.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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This dictionary is no dusty old tome.

The online Ojibwe People's Dictionary features not just words but the voices of native speakers, not just drawings but historic photographs.

Professors and students at the University of Minnesota will launch the dictionary this week as their contribution to an urgent effort to preserve the Ojibwe language and spur a new generation of speakers.

Across the world, linguists and activists, often with the help of universities, are increasingly using digital technology to capture little-spoken languages before they are lost to dominant cultures. Ojibwe is the heritage language of about 200,000 people in the Great Lakes region and Canada, experts estimate, but just a few thousand speak it today.

"The language is where we turn for knowledge about medicines, culture, ceremony, philosophy," said Prof. Brenda Child, chairwoman of the U's Department of American Indian Studies. "We can communicate in English and still be native people, of course.

"But we think there is going to be something tremendously lost to us if we don't make an effort to keep people speaking Ojibwe in this generation."

U students and professors gathered the voices for what they call a cultural, or sometimes "talking," dictionary.

Search the dictionary for "wild rice" and you'll find entries on black ("makade-manoomin"), green ("ozhaawashko-manoomin") and popped ("gaapizigan"), plus words to describe the process of ricing. A chorus of voices, belonging to native speakers with different dialects, pronounces each.

The project expands upon the paperback, "A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe," by Prof. John Nichols, a book of 7,000 words published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1994. Already, the online dictionary includes more than 30,000 Ojibwe words and 60,000 audio files.

The ability to continually add words and "newly gained insights into some of those words" excites linguists, said Brendan Fairbanks, an assistant professor in American Indian Studies. Other online translating tools are useless, he argued, because they don't capture a word's "full function."

"The Ojibwe language reflects how Ojibwe see the world," Fairbanks said. (But he warned against getting "too romantic" about it.)

The site also connects photos and documents from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, a partner in the project. Next, researchers will add deep cultural context to artifacts that might now be captioned, "Indian woman harvesting wild rice," Child said.

"That is very basic information, not from an Ojibwe perspective," she said. "Museums get disconnected from the language and the culture."

A generation skipped

Most of Minnesota's Ojibwe speakers live in Ponemah, a community on the Red Lake Reservation. Child, 53, is from Red Lake, and her mother spoke Ojibwe as her first language. Child's own first language was English.

"You worry," she said. "I can see with the example of my own family how quickly that change can happen."

Her grandmother, a lifelong resident of the Red Lake Reservation, learned English while at a boarding school, Child recounts in her book, "Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940." There, she also picked up some Dakota words and phrases from friends.

"This peculiarly pan-Indian quality of the boarding schools is not what assimilationists, who were committed to the repression of tribal languages and culture, had in mind when they founded the institutions," Child notes.

Child's generation demanded that universities include the history of Native Americans in the narrative of U.S. history, she said. "We were the history generation," she said. "Young people today, their big thing is the language. They are the language generation."

A lifelong pursuit

Many of those who study Ojibwe say that they became fluent by speaking with elders.

"Hanging out and listening to them, asking questions, using the language with them," said Fairbanks, 38.

The online dictionary offers students perhaps the next best thing: recorded voices of native speakers.

Persia Erdrich, 28, studies Ojibwe at the University of Minnesota by day, attends language potlucks on Monday nights and organizes immersion camps on weekends. She has completed the language courses the U offers but considers herself "still just beginning.

"It's a lifelong pursuit," she said. "It's such a complicated language. At this point, I'm spending as much time as I can with elders, who are incredible, patient teachers."

Sitting together, they will explain a trickier word with simpler ones, or maybe demonstrate a verb with their actions.

"What's great about the dictionary," Erdrich said, "is that I can continue to spend time with them even when I'm not physically with them."

Erdrich, whose mother is acclaimed author Louise Erdrich, says it's important for young people to learn their heritage languages, but admits to a simple motivation, as well:

"All the elders are great comedians," she said slyly. "I want to be able to understand their jokes."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

  • LAUNCH PARTY SET FOR MONDAY

    What: Launch party for the Ojibwe People's Dictionary.

    When: 4 to 6:30 p.m. Mon.

    Where: McNamara Alumni Center, 200 SE. Oak St., Mpls.

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