CLOQUET — "Goon!"

The Ojibwe word for snow was a popular one as several Anishinaabe toddlers and their mothers and teachers trudged through the deep snow, the kids either delighting in last week's winter storm, or shedding a few tears, in need of a nap.

Netaa-niimid Persia Erdrich mimed a visual to a visitor indicating her son was tired, as the bundled-up group, shod in snowshoes or nestled into tiny sleighs, made its way along a forested trail in the blowing snow at a northern Minnesota Ojibwe immersion childcare center.

The goal was to check recently set rabbit snares, which, if effective, would result in lessons. But buried deep in goon, the snares were empty. Lighthearted conversations floated through the air, all in Ojibwe.

Such outings are crucial to the mission of the Fond du Lac Tribal College's Grandma's House: to create more first-language Ojibwe speakers and to raise children with clear Anishinaabe identities, aided by elders.

"This is really much bigger than reviving the language," said the center's grant manager, Gaagigegiizhigookwe Nicole Kneeland.

No one who speaks Ojibwe first — meaning English is their second language — remains on the Fond du Lac Reservation. A complex, descriptive language, it was traditionally taught orally. Today, many Anishinaabe tribes, including the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, invest in language programs to combat the crisis of language loss. Alumni of an adult immersion program at Fond du Lac, wanting a place to learn with their children, helped create Grandma's House in 2020.

"First-language speakers carry the sound," Kneeland said. "Ensuring our children know that sound is really important."

Grandma's House, a cooperative center that serves pregnant women and children up to age 5, gathers Ojibwe-speaking elders from other tribes in Minnesota and Canada to work with Anishinaabe kids and their parents. The traditional intergenerational aspect is both key to the immersive nature and unusual — its leaders know of no other Anishinaabe program like it, where elders play a major role in educating parents and their young children in a home-like setting, where no English is spoken.

The pandemic meant some virtual learning, but the families and teachers typically spend their days outside in traditional activities that follow the seasons. They garden, tap trees for maple syrup, harvest wild rice, construct wigwams and make trails. Inside, they prepare snacks, sing songs, nap and play with wooden toys. The curriculum encourages creativity and is Waldorf education-inspired.

The center is supported by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation, which invested in it after interviews with Anishinaabe elders who made connections between language and health, said Bukata Hayes, vice president of racial and health equity for the foundation.

"That's what we believe will make it more impactful," he said. "It's of the community and by the community, in terms of solutions."

Parents are offered a stipend to take part, because the program, which runs five hours a day four days a week, covers much of the workday.

Erdrich participates with her 2-year-old son. Daughter of author Louise Erdrich, she grew up in a house with items labeled in Ojibwe and has spent years studying the language, teaching at an Ojibwe immersion school near Hayward, Wis., before moving to Hermantown to be closer to Grandma's House.

Her son's abilities are starting to overtake her own, she said, because he doesn't need to translate from English in his head. He speaks in Ojibwe when he wakes from dreams and uses it when he's hungry or thirsty.

"It's indescribable, the feeling of hope for the survival of the language," she said.

But it can be a lonely path for parents wanting their children to learn, motivated to break the cycle of their families, Kneeland said. Many lost their ability to speak after attending federal residential schools.

For more than a century in these assimilationist schools across the United States and in Canada, Indigenous people were violently stripped of their languages, culture and traditions.

"We still carry that historical trauma," Kneeland said. "We are trying to make our people strong again and heal. The only way to truly know who you are is to know your language and culture."

The immersion program is a supportive community for parents as they do this work, she said, because not everyone sees the value in revitalizing a language not typically used in mainstream culture.

But the Ojibwe language and ancestral traditions are tied closely together — funerals and ceremonies for healing and naming are spoken in Ojibwe — heightening the need to understand.

"All our Anishinaabe teachings exist within the language and are shared and transferred through the language," said Miigis Gonzalez, a citizen of the Lac Court Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe who has two children at Grandma's House. "I truly believe our ways are [key] to their well-being."

Ogimaawigwahebiik Koko Jones travels more than three hours from Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation near Fort Frances, Ontario, to teach both adults and young children at Fond du Lac. She sometimes rides with her son, and sometimes drives herself.

Jones's siblings were forced to attend a residential school in Canada where speaking Ojibwe was forbidden. When they returned, they no longer wanted to play with her.

"They said, 'Don't speak Indian, you're going to get hit,'" Jones said, because that had been their experience at the school. "We were disconnected."

Somehow Jones escaped their fate. And that's how her native language survived, she said. Today, the 83-year-old is intent on leaving something behind for younger generations.

"I can see their future, that someday they might be me," Jones said. "They are the ones who are going to pass it on."