This article appeared in Win Awenen Nisitotung of May (Wabigonees Geezis Little Flower Moon) 26th, 1998.
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The status of Ojibwemowin, our ojibwe language here in the Sault Tribe, is in critical condition: our language is spoken fluently by approximately 10 or fewer elderly in their 70's and 80's: no mothers are speaking to their babies, and as speech patterns form early the mother's voice is crucial to the teachings babies receive beginning in the womb.
There are some common fears and frustrations for those begining to re-learn our language. Ojibwemowin is quite different compared to english, with some of the sounds unfamiliar as they are not used in english. Yet in a recent conversation with Adrienne Shipman, Program Director for the Sault Tribe's recently established Ojibwe Language Preservation Project, Shipman had suggestions on how to respond to fears, frustrations and criticisim.
"We have such an opportunity. We can speak, even read to our children stories-The Dog's Children, for example, is a collection of stories from our Tribe, written in the language," Shipman states.
"But some feel 'I'm just too old to learn it.' You're never too old!" Shipman credits learners like Ted Hollapa, who started at age 50 and "now speaks well. Some have a fear of being corrected, or saying words wrong. There are all kinds of inhibitions people have; overcome it!"
Shipman notes that when we are learning anything for the first time, there is always a period of "frustration, uncomfortableness; but, this passes with persistence. We need to learn it, even if we learn it one word at a time."
"Some criticisims I hear are, 'That's not the way we say it;' 'We should or shouldn't use a double vowel system,' or 'That's a different dialect;' but, with our language being in such a critical state where we might lose it if we don't use it, we have to get past all the minor discrepancies and how "not" to learn the language. We have to get busy learning our language any way we can in order to honor and respect those who dedicate their lives teaching the language, by learning it."
Shipman explains how language teachers are overwhelmed, and how they need those who can help take on the respnsibility by becoming 'master aprprentices.' Those who still speak the language are overwhelmed and in high demand."
"There is a resurgence, a revitalization of the language now that we are able to speek it freely. Language, all languages, are constantly changing, evolving-language is not a static, fixed thing. Maybe because it's alive; maybe it will become a more universal language," Shipman said.
"We want to include all anishinabe people in language projects. We need to get over the "territory" issues. We have have learned and talked a lot about the language, but we don't use it. We need to use it as often as we can. If you don't use it, you lose it."
Much has been done where language teachers are beginning to identify steps to produce fluent speakers. It's been proven that if children hear and learn language early, they learn well-so well, they become some of the best teachers we have, "that adults are motivated to want to learn through the children's success in learning the language; what a gift to give, receive from our children."
When Shipman talks about the experience of learning our own language, her face lights up, talking about the enjoyment of "breaking the code," the moment when understanding begins. "It's so much fun to learn the language, to see how words go together. Once people start learning, you can see a change in them, a visible happiness, like a spark. We have to go beyond the spark, once people start, to keep them going all the way."
"We've been conducting community meetings, talking circles; it's only the beginning. From community involvement we will be able to form language teams. There are so many activities and ideas. We would like to have people call us, send in letters of support and ideas for learning our language. We need speakers, fluent speakers. Our elders can't do it all for us, without our help. Our children, the next generation, is our opportunity and our opportunity is slipping away from us."
Adrienne Shipman can be contacted at: 523 Ashmun St., Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783; or call (906) 635-6050 ext. 26756; or E-mail: email@example.com
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