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Ojibwe Language Project growing

A customer told Molly Luther, owner of The Good Life Cafe, how to say "the good life" in Ojibwe. She is one of the 25 downtown business owners participating in the Ojibwe Language Project. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)

Signs in both Ojibwe and English continue to flourish.

The Ojibwe Language Project grew out of a three-year partnership between the League of Women Voters Park Rapids Area, the Park Rapids Public Library and Pine Point community members. Now it's a part of ACTION Park Rapids Lakes Area.

The committee aims to incorporate dual-language signage throughout the community. The Ojibwe Language Project encourages local businesses, schools and government entities to display bilingual signage.

Approximately 50 dual-language signs have been placed at 25 downtown Park Rapids businesses. Signage was also adopted by Pine Point School. The committee is currently working with the City of Park Rapids, Park Rapids Area Schools, Itasca State Park, the hospital, the clinic and Hubbard County as well.

"The goal of the project is to create an inclusive, welcoming environment with an awareness of and respect for Ojibwe culture," says committee member Beth Baker-Knuttila. "It is the hope of the committee that the use of bilingual signage will acknowledge the Ojibwe as first inhabitants of our area, encourage more curiosity about the Ojibwe culture by local residents and tourists alike, and encourage better relationships between the communities of Park Rapids and Pine Point as well as others on the White Earth Reservation."

Bemidji, Walker, Detroit Lakes, Grand Marais, Duluth, Kelliher, White Earth and Red Lake have launched the Ojibwe Language Project in their communities.

Baker-Knuttila noted that the Ojibwe text on the signs is authenticated by Michael Meuers, a member of the group that spearheaded the project in Bemidji, who in turn works with Dr. Anton Treuer with Bemidji State University's Language and Indigenous Studies program.

Signs were designed by the ACTION Park Rapids committee with assistance from Pat Ahmann of Innovative Graffix.

Committee member Jennifer Therkilsen said, according to Meuers, "The tourists love it, seeing it in the shops. It's a conversation starter. I think that some of our businesses have seen that."

Therkilsen said the committee is "very likely to seek funding so that we can pay some of the local indigenous artists, so we can photograph their work and use local work on the signs. We're excited about that."

Shelli Walsh, a Park Rapids High School social studies teacher, said, "We have a lot of Native Americans in the high school that would, I think, embrace this idea of having their art being part of the signs."

Business support

Molly Luther, owner of the The Good Life Cafe, said when the restaurant opened in 2009, a customer would leave a napkin on his table with "the good life" translated into Ojibwe.

"Every year, I would tack the napkin to the bulletin board near my desk with the intentions of having the phrase made into a sign for the cafe. Unfortunately, I never got around to it on my own, but when the Ojibwe Language Project approached me, I knew I had to order a custom decal for us and now it's right next to the front door," Luther said. "We also have Ojibwe signs for 'welcome,' 'thank you' and 'unisex restroom.' Customers ask about them regularly, and we're happy to explain the project's goal of building bridges between our communities."

Ojibwe Language Project coordinators are pursuing adding signage to more businesses as well as those located outside of the immediate downtown area.

Linda Hansen, designated coordinator for Hubbard County Developmental Achievement Center (DAC), said a few of the DAC clients speak Ojibwe "and enjoyed assisting the staff with pronunciations. I believe they were honored to see their language being used at their worksites. A native man at our worksite said he felt appreciated."

"The DAC businesses have observed customers reading the signs and attempting to pronounce the words. People think the signs are neat," Hansen continued.

At the Park Rapids Library, bookmarks and a poster were their first Ojibwe language items, said branch manager Jodi Schultz.

The Minnesota Department of Education "asked all the libraries across the state of Minnesota what languages people spoke in their areas because they wanted to get these items printed in the native language of all Minnesotans," Schultz said. "Someone suggested printing some in Ojibwe, because that is the first language of this region."

In November 2016, the library worked with the League of Women Voters Park Rapids Area to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. Someone had the idea to place simple, handwritten signs around the library written in Ojibwe.

"We wanted to do something, even this small thing, to acknowledge that we are occupying space that originally belonged to the Ojibwe people and that there are Native Americans still among us today. We wanted to be mindful that the Ojibwe culture is a living culture, not a people relegated to history," Schultz said.

After the library posted their first handwritten signs, the community came together to create the Ojibwe Language Project.

"We knew we wanted to be a part of it," she said. "People who come here often have grown accustomed to the signs. Occasionally, someone asks about them. Hopefully, the signs convey a message of welcome to our Ojibwe neighbors and an awareness in the community at large about the origins of our home."

Pine Point School

Earlier this year, Pine Point School installed bilingual signs above its doors with the help of the ACTION Park Rapids committee.

Neegonee Bruner, culture teacher at Pine Point School, said, "The signs are amazing. I think it gives the kids a sense of pride."

Pine Point kindergartners through eighth graders are learning to say numbers, seasons, weather, colors, emotions, food and basic household items in Ojibwe. Bruner said she uses songs, stories and skits to teach the language.

Through the language, Bruner said, she learns something new every day, along with her students. Her great-aunt was fluent in Ojibwe, and her dad taught her the traditional ways and the language. There are elders who are fluent speakers, but there aren't that many left, she said.

"Our language is very, very descriptive," she said. The Ojibwe word for a month, for example, explains that it is the season for maple syruping or for gathering wild rice.

"Blueberry pie" is notoriously the longest word in Ojibwe — 66 letters — because it describes how to make the pie. Miin baashkiminishgan biitoosijigan badagwiingweshigan bakwezhigan translates into "blueberry cooked to jellied preserve that lies in layers in which the face is covered in bread."

According to the Ojibwe People's Dictionary (https://ojibwe.lib.umn.edu), Ojibwe is the heritage language of more than 200,000 Ojibwe people who reside in the U.S. and Canada. Ojibwe is not a single standardized language, but a chain of linked local varieties, grouped into nearly a dozen dialects.

Ojibwe is an endangered language. Indigenous languages throughout the world are in decline, and have been since Europeans first colonized the Americas.

The Ojibwe People's Dictionary is a searchable, talking Ojibwe-English dictionary that features the voices of Ojibwe speakers. It is also a gateway into the Ojibwe collections at the Minnesota Historical Society.

"It's really cool, and I think it's a good step that they're taking," Bruner said of the Ojibwe Language Project.

When traveling through Bemidji and seeing Ojibwe signs, Bruner said she feels appreciated. The McDonald's in Bemidji has "hello" in many languages, including Ojibwe, at its drive-thru.

"I was blown away," Bruner said. "It's a good feeling. It's inviting. It makes you want to come back to places like that."

City parks

The Park Rapids Parks and Beautification Board on Feb. 11 discussed whether to add Ojibwe signage at the entrances to city parks.

Baker-Knuttila and Therkilsen displayed life-size examples of the type of signs they had in mind, including Ojibwe and English phrases saying, "Welcome, come on in," "Thank you all," and "Thank you all for coming."

The signs were printed on vinyl applied to an aluminum backing, in colors chosen to coordinate with the signs at the entrances to Lindquist and Red Bridge parks.

City Planner Andrew Mack advised the group to submit an application for a sign permit for each sign to ensure they meet city codes.

Signs for city facilities incorporating art should also receive approval from the city's Arts and Culture Advisory Board, the group was advised. Their separate request for park signs without art need not go to the arts board, but both requests can be submitted to the city council at the same time, said Mack.

City council representative Liz Stone questioned whether singling out Ojibwe culture in this way might set a precedent leading to similar requests from other cultures.

"When other cultures come to us and say, 'Can we put up the Scandinavian wording for 'Thank you' and 'Goodbye'? Where do we start? Where do we stop?" said Stone. "It's a question I've been asked probably 1,000 times. Why are we putting up signs?"

Therkilsen said the impetus for the project was that Ojibwe was the indigenous language of the area. "We could use a better relationship with the Native American community," she said.

Parks board member Ruth Ann Campton stressed, "They did live here and do live here. It's a part of our culture from the beginning."

"I'm not denying it," said Stone. "I'm just saying that we have to have a reason for defending our decision."

Board member Larry Novak noted that the project also has the support of the Park Rapids Downtown Business Association.

Therkilsen said a teller at one of the local banks told her, "I just love those signs. My mother still speaks Ojibwe."

"I had no idea that she was native," said Therkilsen. "I think there are a lot of people in our community whom we don't see as native and who just feel more recognized."

She said an Indian Education teacher told Meuers, "We feel recognized, whereas we felt more invisible in the past."

"I would think people feeling more welcome and comfortable coming to the parks would be a wonderful thing, too," Therkilsen added.

A former elementary teacher in the Park Rapids schools, Baker-Knuttila subbed at Pine Point after her retirement. Based on this experience, she said, "I think coming into middle school in Park Rapids is a difficult transition. The more welcoming our community can be — there are a lot of fences to mend. There is a lot of historical trauma within that community. There's a lot for our non-native community to learn about the native community as well."

At an early meeting in Pine Point, Baker-Knuttila recalled, members of the community spoke of "not feeling very good about Park Rapids, or not feeling that it was a very welcoming community. I think that has a long history."

Referring to the signage project, she said, "This is a tiny, little thing, but it is a step."

"I would support it," said parks board chair Sue Cutler. "I think that it's way past time that we have better relationship with our native culture here, because it's part of our heritage."

Board member Kristi York moved to support adding the Ojibwe signage to the parks, and to defer a decision about the wording on the signs pending review of a list of choices to be provided by Baker-Knuttila. The motion passed with no dissent.

To learn more about the project or order signs, send an email to the project at olpparkrapids@gmail.com.

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