Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia – Preserving Ojibwe Culture through Language

Language frames different cultures’ ways of thought. It is both a point of entry and connection between cultures. That connection used to occur naturally; if you wanted to connect with people, you had to know how to talk to them first. Today, many indigenous languages risk extinction – including the Native American language of the Ojibwe.

As a member of the Ojibwe community and avid researcher of the culture, I have committed much effort to the preservation and continuation of the Ojibwe language and dialect. These revitalization efforts, along with those of my fellow community members, have taken many forms, including the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, the Waadookodaading Ojibwe language immersion school and a variety of learning materials. One of the most accessible outcomes of my research with the University of Minnesota is Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia, a non-profit dedicated to producing and distributing audiovisual materials for learning and exercising the Ojibwe language.

The Grassroots Indigenous Media website, launched earlier this year, hosts children’s songs, conversational videos and other language-learning tools produced by Ojibwe speakers within their own regional dialect. We have received children’s books from Kwayaciiwin Educational Resource Centre, a government-sponsored educational curriculum publication group in Canada, with permission to re-publish them in our Ojibwe dialects. We’ve also partnered with Transparent Language to produce immersive, in-depth educational software.

Despite being the fourth-most widely spoken Native language in the country, the Ojibwe language is currently endangered. Aside from a small percentage of children in Canada being raised by older parents or grandparents, few Ojibwe children are learning the language at home. Most are being taught as second-language learners. That’s why it’s so important that we create materials that can be used by people of all ages, whether it’s children in Minnesota’s Ojibwe immersion schools or their parents. Without a new generation of speakers, Ojibwe will not survive as a living language.

With Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia, we are creating a model for getting Ojibwe awareness tools into the community. Academic instruction is one part of preserving a language, but recently, there’s a renewed public interest in learning one’s heritage and indigenous language. In that way, once you have archives like those we’ve produced at Grassroots, you have gold. You have the things speakers would say – the way they would say them – in many different domains, situations, conversations, games and songs. Those resources become the scaffolding for families to learn and use their native languages.

Projects like Grassroots Indigenous Media and another group funded by the Bush Foundation are also finding ways to get at the social problem that people euphemistically call “diversity.” When people take the time and effort to learn a language, it increases their awareness and appreciation of other cultures. It raises awareness that Ojibwe is the home language of Minnesota – a very old, very precious language – and also helps sustain the culture.

Nobody expects everybody to learn Ojibwe. But if more people had an appreciation that they are only allowed to be monolingual because of the inherent cultural privilege that they have, that would shift much of the perception of other cultures in society. In that way, just by learning a little bit of the language and valuing it, people can become allies and feel as though it’s part of our shared heritage. I hope that, by providing a site that collects many of the resources we’ve developed, we can help you begin that journey.

Mary Hermes

About the Author

Mary Hermes, Ph.D.

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