The sign says “Elbow Lake.” But the White Earth Band of Ojibwe wants that sign to reflect the lake’s Ojibwe name: “Gaaodooskwaani Gamaag.”
The band has asked Becker County officials to let them install a dozen bilingual signs along county roads as part of an urgent effort to preserve the language. They hope to start by putting signs on the reservation, in northern Minnesota, eventually placing them beyond its borders.
The signs would boost public awareness of the Ojibwe language and culture, said Mary Otto, White Earth’s assistant education director. And they’d mean something special to the band’s children, who learn Ojibwe words and phrases in class, she said.
“That they could see their language and part of their culture … on the roads they drive on every day on the school bus or with their parents,” Otto said, “it would instill pride and identity for them.”
Such signs are becoming more common in northern Minnesota. In recent years, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa worked with Carlton and St. Louis counties to install bilingual road signs.
A simple green-and-white sign beside Simian Lake in St. Louis County now reads “Chi-wizo-zaaga’iganing” and below it “Simian Lake,” a photo shows.
But at a Becker County board meeting this month, several commissioners raised concerns that such signs could be confusing, especially if they’re placed beyond reservation borders.
If people see a sign in Ojibwe, they might believe that they’re on tribal land, County Commissioner Ben Grimsley said.
“A native person on reservation property has different hunting and fishing rights than they do on non-native property,” Grimsley said by phone last week. “So, if it all gets signed with Ojibwe, it would probably appear to be on the reservation.”
A few board members also suggested that the Ojibwe language go below the English.
White Earth employees gave a lot of thought to placement, Otto said. “We want the Ojibwe on the top,” she said. “We’re not renaming something.
“That’s what it was originally called on our land by the people who lived here.”
The County Board’s highway committee will review the tribe’s proposal — including where the signs would go and what they would look like — in February, before the full board votes.
The tribe would pay for the new, dual-language signs through a $12,000 grant from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.
It’s part of a broader plan to revitalize a language that some reports have warned is dying. In 2009, UNESCO called the Ojibwe-Chippewa language “severely endangered” in the United States. It tallied just 8,000 remaining speakers, mostly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
A 2008 report focused on White Earth found just eight first-generation speakers — all over the age of 60, Otto said. “And since that time, we have lost more.”