April 2010: Speaking Our Language: Preserving the Saginaw Chippewa Dialect
In the mid-2000s, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Central Michigan faced a cultural crisis: Its Anishinabemowin language, a dialect of Ojibway that has been spoken for thousands of years, was almost extinct. Among the tribe’s 3,578 members, only a handful of elders spoke it fluently. If something wasn’t done to save the language, the tribe would soon lose a large part of its culture and history.
This sense of urgency prompted the administrators at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways, a cultural center and tribal museum that opened in 2004, to develop the Speaking Our Language project as a way to document and preserve the language.
"We needed to play more of an active role for the community in providing an opportunity to capture the last remaining speakers of this dialect and offering opportunities for those speakers to engage with the broader community," said Shannon Martin, the museum’s director and member of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians – Gun Lake Tribe.
The museum applied for and received a series of three one-year IMLS Native American/Native Hawaiian Museum Services grants to fund Speaking Our Language. The final grant of $49,603 was awarded in 2007 to help the museum record the remaining fluent speakers, and to provide immersion programs and language activities.
Recording and Sharing
Martin describes the project as a kind of salvage recovery operation. The priority was to identify the fluent speakers, build relationships with them, and then record them. Initially, museum staff had difficulty persuading the few fluent speakers to be recorded. One, Beatrice Colwell, was very reluctant at first, so the museum staff approached the others.
"We identified two other speakers of the language, and they just outright refused to be recorded, whether it was their own personal values or [being] indoctrinated by the boarding schools, they just felt that they did not want to be a part of teaching the language to anyone else," explained Martin.
Eventually Colwell, who is now 77, agreed to participate, and the museum staff digitally recorded 22 hours and 6 minutes of her speaking Anishinabemowin. She recounted her early childhood years and some tribal history.
The museum also provided several opportunities for the community to hear and use the language. In January 2008, museum staff initiated an immersion program for families with children aged 3 to 6, called the Lil’ Language Warriors Club. It met twice a month in the museum’s Anishinabe language immersion room. Staff began the initial sessions with fun activities using animal (clan) names and stuffed toy animals, as well as songs to go along with them. During later sessions, staff taught the children phrases and had them say and do the action of each phrase to help them remember.
For adults, the museum continued to host the Anishinabemowin Club, a language group that had been established in one of the previous grant years. Fluent elders taught adult learners at twice-monthly club meetings. When a pronunciation question arose, Colwell was able to verify phrases or correct dialect.
In addition, four community Anishinabemowin Immersion Cultural Teaching & Feast events took place during the project, one at each equinox and solstice. At each event, the feasts and teachings—such as petroglyph interpretations, medicine plant identification, and clan histories—were given completely in the language, with translations from fluent speakers, some of whom had slightly different dialects because they come from outside the community.
During the 2007–08 grant project, the museum was able to maintain a full-time employee to coordinate all of the language services and activities. Grant funds also went to purchase many language books, CDs, tapes, and children’s puzzles for the museum’s language resource library.
A total of 954 people participated in Anishinabemowin language immersion activities with a fluent speaker during the grant period. The language library collection grew to 278 resources during the project; now it contains more than 300.
The 22 hours of Colwell recordings have become one of the museum’s most cherished collections. They are in the process of being edited, categorized, and cataloged; about half have been transcribed so far. Nevertheless, all of the audio files are accessible from four public computers in the museum’s research center.
During the project, 375 people, including 90 youth, participated in the Anishinabemowin Club. The Lil’ Language Warriors Club drew fewer participants than originally anticipated, but the sessions proved successful, with participating children demonstrating a 69 percent language comprehension rate. They know the sounds and patterns of the language and are able to distinguish words; thus, they have reached the language competence stage. They will need continual practice to maintain their progress.
Martin noted that both clubs have core groups of people who participate, but it has been difficult to boost attendance.
"We still capture new people, but for the most part there still is a lot of intimidation with people not wanting to join a language club or to come. The trepidation seems to be a symptomatic, ingrained shame or fear of saying the wrong thing or saying it incorrectly. So we’re still trying to overcome that in our community," she said.
The community immersion events were also successful, drawing a high of more than 100 people in the summer and a low of about 60 in the winter.
"It’s families, all ages, primarily tribal people, but we’ve been drawing people from other walks of life who are interested in the language," said Martin.
One lesson the staff learned was that in teaching language in an immersion setting to both children and adults, it was most effective to use what people knew and did every day, and have them learn common phrases and actions in the language, rather than using a Western pedagogical style.
"Instead of providing them with charts of ‘Let’s count from one to a thousand,’ we switched gears and said, ‘That’s not really usable. Let’s use everyday phrases, let’s work with the kids and use things that they understand and know as tools and mechanisms to deliver the language,’" said Martin. "That builds confidence."
For example, one of the longer phrases the children learned in the Lil’ Language Warriors Club was "Hand me the spoon, knife, and fork."
Creating Awareness—and a New Program
The project’s most significant result, however, may have been how it raised awareness and appreciation for the fading language. "There’s a greater sense of support and acceptance and understanding that the language always has to be a critical cultural component for our people," said Martin.
The tribal government’s actions reflect this new appreciation. During the grant periods, staff members from the museum, the Tribal Education Department, and the Tribal College formed an informal committee to discuss how to advance language awareness and acquisition. The grant activities built momentum for language preservation, and in June 2008, the Tribal Council passed a resolution to support and improve tribal language services.
Museum staff later helped to design a new, tribally funded Anishinabe Language Revitalization Department, which launched in summer 2009 with the mission of bringing Anishinabemowin back to the community and generating fluent speakers.
One of the department’s first actions was to open an Immersion Room for Toddlers at the Saginaw Chippewa Academy. Ten children, aged 1½ to 3 years, enrolled in September 2009. Only Anishinabemowin is spoken in the Immersion Room and on the buses to and from school, and the curriculum is based on the techniques developed by the Speaking Our Language project. If all goes well, the academy hopes to expand enrollment and eventually add immersion instruction levels from kindergarten to high school.
The Road Ahead
The museum plans to make more recordings and will continue to offer language activities —the Lil’ Warriors Club, Anishinabemowin Club, and immersion events—all while supporting the academy’s new immersion class.
"The task we have at Ziibiwing is to provide a comprehensive reinforcement of what the toddlers are learning," said Martin. "We’re now working to synthesize our curriculum across the board so that it supports the language acquisition path of the Sasiwaans children and their families."