RED LAKE, Minn. — A new movement to form an Ojibwe language immersion charter school for young grades beginning kindergarten through fifth grade is underway in Red Lake.
The school project, titled, Endazhi-Nitaawiging, or "the place where it grows," has a mission of preparing each student for college with an enhanced knowledge of the Ojibwe language, culture, leadership and environmental stewardship.
Nate Taylor, director of the Waasabiik Ojibwemotaadiwin Immersion Program for 3- and 4-year-olds in Red Lake, is spearheading this initiative, which began in 2014.
The school is set to open in the fall of 2022, but still has some hurdles to clear before that can happen.
Taylor, originally from Red Lake, had moved away to Kansas when he felt drawn to return to Red Lake. He came back, tried to find work, and found himself swept up in a language revitalization project that led to the school's creation.
Goals of the school
The Endazhi-Nitaawiging charter school initiative aims to strengthen the Red Lake Nation by providing its children with an education grounded in Ojibwe values that is academically rigorous and celebrates Indigenous culture, Taylor explained.
The program will start small, expanding grade levels as it grows. Endazhi-Nitaawiging will open hopefully in 2022 by enrolling students in grades kindergarten through fifth grade and will add a grade level each year until 2025-26, expanding to students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade. Taylor said someday, he would love for the program to include high school grades as well.
“We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew,” Taylor said. “We're going to start small. We're not going to have more than 80 to 100 students, and we're gonna have kind of small classes, at most 15 students to a class.”
Balancing language and culture
The core values of the school center around Ojibwe language and culture revitalization and preservation and an indigenized approach to education.
Taylor said he was tired of seeing culture and language treated as an elective instead of as a framework for all learning to be built around. He said there are two ways to approach learning in the immersion school — through language and through culture.
“Culture would fall under things like sugar bush, gathering maple syrup, wild rice, farming, kinship to the land and knowledge of the plants and things like that,” he said. “Language is the goggles in a sense to the old world, the way to see what they saw.”
He explained that since the Ojibwe language is structured more around things that are living versus things that are inanimate, learning to speak it can promote greater respect and understanding for things that are alive.
“When you find that connection and you're doing as your people have always done, it's a feeling that's indescribable, it makes you feel like, 'I know, my ancestors are watching,'" Taylor said. “We know in our hearts that it’s something that needs to happen. Red Lake of all places, I feel like would be a good place, it has the potential to become a mecca for the language.”
The school’s name, Endazhi-Nitaawiging, or the place where it grows, can refer to a number of things.
“The place where it grows, that can mean knowledge, wisdom, children — just a place for growth,” Taylor said. “I just feel like there's so much beauty within who we are, and we want to be able to let that grow.”
Building a foundation
The program will start learners in the language young, when it’s generally easiest to learn a language, and building the foundation from the students who have already been involved in the 3- and 4-year-old program. Taylor said the new school hopes to target former students of the Waasabiik Ojibwemotaadiwin Immersion Program for enrollment in the charter initiative.
“The (first) kids that went through our immersion school are in about fifth grade right now. So it won't be necessarily all foreign to them,” he said. “I feel like it's easier to just start them young because Ojibwe is a very complex language.”
In a promotional video highlighting the initiative, Red Lake Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki Sr. expressed his support for the school.
“I fully support the initiative for our students to learn our Red Lake Nation Constitution, our language, our culture and our traditions, so they’ll know what it is to be a Red Lake Nation tribal member,” Seki said.
Timeline until 2022
The program has already cleared a number of hurdles on its way to becoming an official school, but it has quite a few more before opening in 2022.
The initiative is currently waiting on approval from the charter school authorizer Osprey Wilds, the authorizer behind Bemidji charter schools AWCL and Voyageurs. This decision will be made on April 1, Taylor said.
If authorized, then the measure will move on to the state Department of Education for a stamp of approval. Throughout this time, the group will also work to draw in interested students and staff. Soon it will establish itself as a 501c3 nonprofit and begin a fundraising campaign.
Ideally, the school would have its own new building by the time it’s set to open, but Taylor said other plans are in the works in the case that doesn’t come to fruition.
“In a perfect world, we're gonna have our building, (so we can) swing the doors open and (say), ‘Come on in.’ But, we have a contingency plan to utilize a small space in Little Rock. If we're not able to get our building, we have a Plan B and a Plan C,” Taylor said.