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2012 Fall Issue 8 (November 9, 2012)

On the Outside Looking In

November 9, 2012
By Jonathan Lin

Ojibwe educator Leslie Harper opened her convocation with a long string of Ojibwe phrases. Her presentation slides were mostly in the same tongue, and together these factors exemplified her devotion to the preservation of her native culture.

An adult learner of the Ojibwe language, Harper discussed the difficulty of learning at such a late stage, which contributed greatly to her work as director of Niigaane, the elementary school immersion program in northern Minnesota.

While recounting the school’s establishment more than a decade earlier, Harper emphasized the challenge of maintaining the fundamental linguistic component of her Ojibwe culture.

“Out of a population of ten thousand, only about sixty to seventy are remaining speakers,” she said. Only this tiny handful grew up speaking the language, and are now bilingual in Ojibwe and English.

Harper evoked a history of colonizers and fur traders, during which Ojibwe was “the lingua franca of the day: the imperialists all had to learn the language if they wanted to succeed in the trade markets.”

The term “imperial” came up repeatedly in her talk; Harper characterized her current efforts to preserve Ojibwe culture as a form of active “resistance” against the prevalence of English as the spoken language in the United States and as a way to teach children to have a stronger sense of their own identity.

“My grandparents grew up speaking Ojibwe. Listening to my grandpa tell jokes in Ojibwe was the best thing ever,” Harper said.

Personal anecdotes such as this really captured the essence of what she is trying to preserve, and she used these stories to effectively support the studies she cited, such as those in linguistics that found that one’s intense emotions most often emerge in one’s first language.

“We want to give our people this opportunity of expression,” Harper explained.

Unfortunately the bulk of her presentation revolved around the legal framework of implementing Ojibwe learning programs. These details are by no means trivial, and the volume of such content that Harper shared was clearly evidence of the work that remains to be done in this area.

Yet in between slides packed with dense legal language, she repeatedly apologized for the textual onslaught in the presentation. Article Three of the No Child Left Behind Act - which allowed the use of funds in schoolwide programs - was included in its entirety on one slide.

The text was overwhelming in its density, yet Harper kept referring back it, saying “I like to remind others that this exists.” 

Besides the legislative details, Harper’s presentation stressed a discontinuity between what federal policy has in writing and the actual availability of funds. This enormous discrepancy has been the largest obstacle for getting more immersion programs up and running.

“There are only two Ojibwe schools for children in the entire United States,” Harper said. She lamented this lack of resources and how it has interfered with her intent to promote the cognitive and social benefits of multilingualism.

Harper concluded by offering quotations from a couple of the Ojibwe elders who taught at Niigaane. “It was like our kids were on the outside looking in at ourselves, at our language and culture,” one said about the past before the immersion program. “Now they are fully a part of it.”

Harper’s belief in the importance of preserving culture through linguistic means was purposeful, authentic, and “grounded in decades of lingual studies.” Her final image was poignant and promising: younger generations of Ojibwe children currently attending Niigaane urging their adult and elder relatives to speak in the same language, fully believing that it was the true and proper way of communication.

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