The Ojibwe language is the fourth most common Native American language spoken in North America, with a total of approximately 56.531 speakers in the US and Canada. Even so, like most native languages, it is in some danger of dying out as most of the speakers are elderly.
However, steps are being taken to preserve the language. One effort, which is being led by University of Minnesota Duluth education professor Mary Hermes, involves creating a series of videos showing Ojibwe being used in casual, everyday situations, as it will have to be spoken if it is to survive and thrive in the future.
Speaking to Mother Nature Network, Hermes explained:
“What we are hoping is that you hear it in an everyday way, [with phrases like] ‘tie your shoes,’ ‘get up,’ ‘hey mom what’s for breakfast,’ — that kind of informal speaking … that’s not necessarily correct formal grammar, but the way you would speak it.”
The videos are made by native Ojibwe speakers like Ruby Boshey. Boshey is not only a native speaker, she is also old enough to remember the effort US authorities put into their attempts to destroy the language She told MNN:
“When I was five years old, the priests came and picked us up from my reservation on Lac La Croix, Ontario. I’d never heard an English word before then, and they dumped me in a residential school,” she recalls.
“The scariest part that I remember was they were telling my brother that I was supposed to ‘talk English’,” says Boshey.
But to the small girl, the words “talk English” sounded something like the word for “wolf” in Ojibwe.
“And I was thinking, oh, my, God. They want to feed me to the wolves now because I’m not speaking their language!” she says.
Fortunately, Ms. Boshey held onto the memories of the language, practising it in her head even though she wasn’t able to speak it out loud. Now, the tide has turned, and Ojibwe people of all ages are trying to recover the language. Professor Hermes’ multimedia efforts, made possible by elders like Ms. Boshey, are an excellent way to help spread knowledge of the language to those who want to learn.