DULUTH - Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe member William Gidagigwaneb Premo was in line at the grocery store recently behind a group of young Native American girls. One of them dropped a dollar, he said, so he leaned over and told her so in Ojibwe.

"Her eyes grew as big as saucers," Premo said.

When he passed her group on the way out of the store, someone asked her, "What did that old fool say," he said, laughing.

After that, he wanted to ensure all Ojibwe kids learned pieces of their language.

To "talk to your grandmother, have a sentence or two to say to her that would make her proud, make her happy," he said.

That explains his role in a new app launched by the Mille Lacs Band and Rosetta Stone this month. As the band's first-language speakers have dwindled to fewer than two dozen, it has ramped up efforts to preserve and revitalize the language for generations to come: The app joins five recently published Ojibwe-language books, among other projects.

The band, which owns all rights to the app, will also earn proceeds from sales.

The payment arrangement was a way to avoid band member skepticism, said Anton Treuer, a Bemidji State University Ojibwe language professor and author who consulted on the project. Native Americans are often taken advantage of by government and corporations, he said, and this was a way to ease their concern.

While Rosetta Stone has several partnerships involving endangered languages, the Mille Lacs project is its first with Ojibwe and the first in the state, said Alexandra Loginov, Ojibwe curriculum development lead for Rosetta Stone.

Crews come to east-central Minnesota to film and record interviews and stories with band members who speak Ojibwe for the app and its desktop version, which focuses on vocabulary, grammar, enunciation and culture. The platform is free to Mille Lacs members and descendants and $100 for most others.

"What is great with an online program is that you can leverage the knowledge of a few to make language and cultural instruction available to many," Loginov said.

The company worked with Mille Lacs to ensure the app taught what the band felt was most vital, showcasing largely the Mille Lacs community. What was captured, then, is the language spoken there. Six levels of learning are planned.

About 20% of the band's fluent Ojibwe speakers died during the COVID-19 pandemic, Treuer said.

Great progress has been made teaching Ojibwe through immersion schools and the development of new resources, he said, but so many first-language speakers have been lost. Now second-language speakers like himself must continue the work, he said, and tools like the app help keep the words and stories of elders alive.

Losing a language is losing "connective tissue," Treuer said.

Indigenous people are "constantly code-switching, seeking acceptance of something that will never accept you," he said of white culture. "But if we lean into our own language and culture revitalization we can be accepted for exactly who we are, and this is healing and humanizing for those who have experienced marginalization and oppression."

Premo, who told stories for the app, considers himself mostly fluent. Ojibwe was his first language growing up, but it fell away when he first left the reservation as a young man to join the military. But it never disappeared, he said.

"The words are there; all I have to do is hear them again," said the 74-year-old. "The more I talk to other elders, the more the language reawakens."