Bills in the state Legislature could boost efforts to preserve Dakota and Ojibwe languages by tapping a dwindling resource: the elders.
Among Minnesota's 11 American Indian tribes, there is a race against time to preserve their native languages.
As the tribes' elders die, with them their knowledge of their native language.
"[Last] month, Curtis Campbell was laid to rest," said Ron Johnson, president of the Prairie Island Indian Community. "He was one of our fluent elders. We're losing them real quick."
Bills making their way through the Minnesota Legislature would take money from the new "Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment" in 2010 to create a group made up of the 11 tribes, and other interested parties, to inventory what is being done and to investigate what still needs to happen to revitalize the Dakota and Ojibwe languages.
The bills would provide $150,000 of the nearly $234 million that the amendment is expected to generate in fiscal year 2010 to the Minnesota Department of Education to support the group.
"It's pretty much the heart of a culture," said Tad Johnson, who works in government affairs for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. "You lose the language, you lose the way thoughts used to be arrived at. Preserving our language is pretty much number one in the list of things we're trying to preserve."
At the American Indian Magnet School in St. Paul, Michele Fairbanks' third-grade students count along with her in Ojibwe.
They enthusiastically tell her what she means when she starts the class with "Boozhoo gwiiwizensag miinawaa ikwezensag!" ("Hello, boys and girls.")
"It's probably my funnest class," said Amanda Merwin, whose family is Ojibwe. Her mother speaks a few words, and "my Dad is kind of learning. But I'm way better."
The school would love to have an immersion program, said Kathy Denman-Wilke, the supervisor of American Indian education for the St. Paul Public School, "but because of funding, we've never been able to do that."
The Ojibwe-Chippewa language in the United States is classified as "severely endangered" by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, with 8,000 speakers remaining, mostly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. The Dakota language, also called Sioux and Lakota, is categorized as "unsafe," with 25,000 speakers remaining.
Minnesota tribes do have their own language programs.
The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, for example, has its own K-12 school, Nay Ah Shing, where language and culture are incorporated throughout the 185 students' education.
Mille Lacs has 4,000 members, but only 85 of them speak the language fluently.
"This is an issue that we really need to get on top of quickly, because we're losing the fluent speakers we have," said Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, the bill's chief Senate author.
How successful have the language preservation efforts been? It's a mixed story.
There are considerable barriers for schools and education programs, and the group of tribes could address those if the legislation passes.
Having the languages available widely in Minnesota's public schools, which educate the vast majority of the state's American Indian children, could be a huge boon to the languages.
But finding qualified or fluent teachers, who also have Minnesota teaching licenses, is a serious challenge, as well as finding funding to support the programs.
"The preservation of the languages is a big part of our state's history," said Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, the chief author of the House bill. "That includes both the immigrant history and the Native American history."
If the bills don't find their way into law this year, "there will always be next year, too," said John Poupart, president of the American Indian Policy Center. "But I don't want to get people into thinking that we have a lot of time. Our elders, the ones who still possess the language, don't have the luxury of additional years."
Emily Johns • 612-673-7460