Mille Lacs Band launches Ojibwe books
THOUSAND LAKES RESERVATION – Towards the end of her life, Lucy Clark felt a sense of melancholy.
“She was sad,” said her grandson, Steve Premo, “because she couldn’t hear the song of the tongue.”
Native Indian languages have been suppressed for generations in Minnesota and elsewhere, to the point that fewer than 25 “first speakers” – those who speak a language from birth – remain in the Thousand Lakes Strip of Ojibwe.
But now Lucy Clark’s mind can smile as the band brings the song back to life. At a celebration earlier this month, the group launched five books written in their Ojibway dialect.
Dozens of band members contributed to the project, including Premo, who provided illustrations. Others told native stories and helped with vocabulary. Joe Nayquonabe, a keynote speaker, said the experience was “one of the happiest times of my life.
“Being with the elders, seeing their smiling faces and feeling like a community,” said Nayquonabe, 77.
That’s the purpose of the effort, said Baabiitaw Boyd, the group’s senior advisor on language revitalization initiatives.
“We want to rebuild self-esteem and identity as an Anishinaabe,” Boyd said, using a term denoting a large group of culturally related indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region. “One of the ways we do this is through language revitalization, [to] give people the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of Anishinaabe practices, what it means to be in the Anishinaabe family.
“We are very proud of it and we think it is a great success.”
It would have been difficult to find someone at the launch of the book who disagreed. Over 100 people of all ages mingled and shared food at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum as they celebrated the book project and the elders who contributed their knowledge.
Children ran and played while proud contributors signed copies of the books. The elders shared stories as old friends laughed and joked with each other, often in Ojibwe.
The book project was carried out under the aegis of the group’s Aanjibimaadizing division, which means “changing lives”. This is another indication of the group’s belief that language is the key to the overall improvement of the lives of its members.
“I think this is very important because our ancestors are the ones who taught us,” said Carol Nickaboine, an 82-year-old first speaker. “Languages should not be forgotten,” she added, chuckling, noting that she even spoke Ojibwe to her cat.
Shirley Boyd was a labor pioneer, leaving the reserve to drive trucks and loaders for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Boyd, also an 82-year-old first speaker, was among the first women and the first Indians to hold these jobs. She told her story in one of the books.
“I went out and worked in the white man’s world,” she said. “I had to – there was nothing here.”
The books are published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, which has published 45 books in Ojibway and Dakota over the past two decades. The project took just under three years from concept to publication, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing much of the work to be done through online video calls.
Still, it was a joyful experience, said Anton Treuer, who served as editor.
“We had to take a lot of laughter breaks,” he said, laughing as he described how grandchildren would be sent to help their grandparents connect to Zoom calls.
“The team has done an incredible job releasing five books in less than three years in the midst of a pandemic,” said Tammy Wickstrom, executive director of Aanjibimaadizing.
The difference between this publication and other publications of works in Ojibwe is that these books are completely monolingual, and the press had to trust the group team to put together books that no one on the publishing team. could read.
“I’m a helper on this, not a visionary,” said Ann Regan, editor-in-chief of the press. “And we are not responsible. We work with extremely knowledgeable, competent and committed people.”
Humans have not had writing for most of their history, Regan said. But now these oral traditions are in danger of being lost, making it crucial to preserve the language in written form as the best way to pass it on to future generations.
“This is the heartbreaking part of this language job,” she said. “Every time an elder dies, you lose a dictionary. If you don’t write it down, you won’t have material to teach people the way they need to learn now.”
The Ojibwe language is sacred to its people, said Treuer, an Ojibwe professor at Bemidji State University and author of nearly 20 books on Indian language, culture and history.
“It is at the center of our identity,” he said. “Our unique worldview is embodied in our language. For us, our language should be at the center of all efforts to live long and healthy lives.”
The book projects were driven by the group’s elders’ desire to preserve the legacy passed down to them from their ancestors, Treuer said.
“The elders made a pretty strong statement about what they value, and the young people don’t just follow it, they lead it,” he said.
“The goal is to teach speakers for hundreds of years to come.”
John Reinan • 612-673-7402