The Nevis School Board discussed this possibility of adding Ojibwe as an elective course at their March meeting. Board member Justin Isaacson, a member of the district’s American Indian Parental Advisory Committee (AIPAC) team, brought up the issue during his board report.

Nevis may partner with other schools

“We had some good conversation at our last meeting about offering the Ojibwe language, maybe through collaboration with other schools,” Isaacson said. “Mel Buckholtz (Nevis School’s American Indian Liaison) brought up how elementary students have been learning simple phrases in Ojibwe. I think that’s a good start, also inclusion of their heritage and way of life. I think that’s a way for greater assimilation and cohesiveness between all students, learning about people’s struggles and way of life so it’s not so foreign to you. I think it’s good that we’re exploring these things and have this committee. Hopefully, we can find some ways to collaborate with other districts and offer a variety of learning opportunities for the kids.”

Board chair Andy Lindow agreed. “Studies say that once you get to know someone’s culture it helps remove negative differences,” he said. “We might not be able to have full course offerings, but if we could have some electives with another district, maybe through Zoom, the possibilities are endless right now. It would bring more inclusion among different groups.”

Buckholtz said more work needs to be done. “We’ve talked about it,” he said. “We’d need to do a needs assessment and find out who would be interested. I’ve called a couple of schools. I talked to Cass Lake, but the hard part for us is all of our kids would be in the very, very beginning of learning Ojibwe. A lot of the other schools are established. So we’re trying to find some place that matches up. We’d almost have to find an elementary school (offering Ojibwe) just to get started.”

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Complexity of Ojibwe

Sharon Nordrum is the Anishinaabe liaison with Laporte School, where she said approximately 22 percent of students are of Anishinaabe descent.

“I mainly work with the teachers,” she said. “Laporte School is set up as an all-inclusive Native American education from preschool through 12th grade. What that means as we do not exclude anybody from the culture. As the teachers are doing their curriculum for the classroom, if there is some way we can incorporate the Native American culture into that, they contact me and I work to figure out a way to do that.”

The Laporte School District has also been exploring offering the Ojibwe language as an elective for high school students.

Nordrum said some basic Ojibwe words are included in the curriculum, such as animal names, some berries and other foods.

“Because I am not fluent in Ojibwe, it’s hard to teach it,” she said. “We would like to move forward with offering it sometime in the near future.”

Nordrum said even some of the Anishinaabe elders aren’t fluent. “In the boarding schools, they were told not to speak their language,” she said. “You look at the boarding schools of the 1930s, 40s and 50s and look at how old those people are. Those are our elders. So we had to relearn it. And we were not allowed to practice our religion or any of those things until the 1970s.”

There are some fluent speakers of Ojibwe who are willing to teach the language to others.

“Maybe an online language table,” she said. “COVID has really wrecked some of those things that were working. We did have language tables and then we couldn’t meet in person. I don’t know anybody in the Native communities who feels comfortable with anything like that. And our language is such a complicated language. It’s the hardest language in the world to learn because it’s so descriptive. You have to break words down to know exactly what you’re talking about. I think it’s important to have the language in the school because if you have it for all students then there’s a different understanding of the world around them once they start learning the words and how those words are broken up and what they actually mean. It changes your perspective and how you interact with the world around you. That’s what’s most important about the language.”

Language builds bridges

Nordrum said it is important for schools to offer the Ojibwe language to all students, not just the Anishinaabe students.

“The only way we’re going to start changing how we interact in this world is if we start looking at different cultures and the meanings of their words, the interaction between who you are and a tree or the rocks or the river. As soon as you start learning how the words work, you become more a part of the world around you. The more you introduce students to all different cultures, the better the bridges are going to become, and the less racism and hatred is going to be out there.”

She said the Anishinaabe believe all of nature is connected. “The trees are our grandfathers,” she said. “Everything has a place in our world.”

Nordrum said one of her most memorable experiences was taking students to her son’s community sugar bush on the Power Dam Road in March 2019. They tapped trees, collected sap and filled pans with sap to be boiled down later. Later, they got to taste maple syrup made from the sap they collected.

“I love how students soak up the information,” she said. “I love when students tell me that was their best day ever when we went to the sugar bush, brought in mahnomen or sat and told star stories.”