Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ojibwe: An Endangered Minnesota Language

The Ojibwe language, spoken by the Ojibwe or Chippewa people, is one of the world's imperiled languages. It is also one of the early native tongues spoken within the territory now known as Minnesota. And this Monday, a documentary about the steps taken within the state to revitalize this dying language will debut on TPT 2.

Leech Lake Ojibwe Delegation to Washington 1899
Dr. Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University, is not a native Ojibwe speaker, having studied and learned the language as an adult. But now he has dedicated his work to interviewing the last remaining "first speakers" or "functional speakers" - those for whom Ojibwe is their first language. It is estimated that there are fewer than a thousand of these fluent Ojibwe speakers left in the United States and most of them are older than age 70.

One of the main reasons that indigenous languages like Ojibwe have nearly disappeared throughout North America is due to early policies within the United States to assimilate Native Americans. After taking their lands, the government banned the practice of native traditional religious practices and established "English only" boarding schools which children were required to attend. The native languages that once echoed across the United States were being systematically scrubbed from the cultural landscape.

Chippewa baby at a Minnesota rice farm, 1940
Produced and edited by John Whitehead, "First Speakers: Restoring the Ojibwe Language," is a film that documents the rescue and revitalization of the Ojibwe language that is taking place in Minnesota. The film follows Treuer, and others like him, who are driving the Ojibwe language resurgence. Many of them studied the language at the University of Minnesota, Bemidji State University, and with tribal elders. They are working to undo some of the damage done to their culture by establishing Ojibwe language immersion charter schools. Some already exist in the state at in Leech Lake and in Minneapolis.

Through this model, it is hoped that a new generation of "first speakers" will be established, children for whom Ojibwe is a primary language. Then the language, and the culture, may not be lost and stand a chance of surviving, to be passed on to the next generation.

"First Speakers: Restoring the Ojibwe Language" is a production of Twin Cities Public Television and will debut on November 1 at 8 p.m. on TPT 2.

Additionally, Dr. Anton Treuer’s book “Ojibwe in Minnesota” was recently named as the “Best Read in Minnesota 2010” by The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. Part of the “The People of Minnesota” book series, “Ojibwe in Minnesota” is just 122 pages, but is intended to help people understanding the complicated history of the Ojibwe people – their language, culture, economics and legalities.

[This article has been updated to include corrected information. Though Dr. Treuer is a main subject of the film, he did not produce it. It was produced and edited by John Whitehead. Thank you, John, for your comment!]


  1. Thanks for your discussion/mention of First Speakers. One clarifying note: Anton Treuer is the main subject of the film, but he didn't make the film. The film was written, produced and edited by yours truly, John Whitehead. This is not to take anything away from Anton's amazing work, btw, just that he didn't 'create" the documentary.

    John Whitehead
    Independent filmmaker, St. Paul

  2. Thank you for your comment! The information has been updated and included in the post :)

    And great documentary, by the way :) Very enjoyable.

  3. This is not to take anything away from Anton's amazing work, btw, just that he didn't 'create" the documentary.

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