Duluth School Board to vote on Ojibwe language immersion

A kindergarten Ojibwe immersion class, where students spend most of their day learning in the language native to the region, could be an option for a Duluth elementary school next year.

By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune Feb 24, 2014

A kindergarten Ojibwe immersion class, where students spend most of their day learning in the language native to the region, could be an option for a Duluth elementary school next year.

The Duluth School Board will vote on adding such a program Tuesday.

“It’s a big move,” said Edye Howes, coordinator of the American Indian education program for the Duluth school district. “Historically, the Duluth American Indian community hasn’t had much trust in Duluth public schools. This would be a statement: Look what we’re willing to do to start strengthening and building a relationship.”

Shannon O’Nabigon beats a rhythm on the drum as she and other children sing “Weya Heya,” an Ojibwe counting song, in the Ojibwe Language Nest at the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2009. Teacher Gordon Jourdain is at right. From left are George Petersen, Eleanor Ness and Grace Russell. The Duluth school district will vote Tuesday on whether to add a kindergarten Ojibwe immersion class at one of the district’s elementary schools. (File / News Tribune)

Shannon O’Nabigon beats a rhythm on the drum as she and other children sing “Weya Heya,” an Ojibwe counting song, in the Ojibwe Language Nest at the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2009. Teacher Gordon Jourdain is at right. From left are George Petersen, Eleanor Ness and Grace Russell. The Duluth school district will vote Tuesday on whether to add a kindergarten Ojibwe immersion class at one of the district’s elementary schools. (File / News Tribune)

Immersion programs, such as those for Spanish, have grown in popularity nationwide for their ability to develop cognitive skills, especially at a young age. Such programs also help to broaden a student’s worldview and the ability to think from another perspective, Howes said.

For a few years, the Duluth district has partnered with the University of Minnesota Duluth and its Enweyang Ojibwe Language Nest for young children, currently teaching those up to pre-K. Gordon Jourdain teaches that class, which also serves as a lab for students at UMD who plan to teach Ojibwe.

Immersion programs do more in helping with the achievement gap than anything else, Jourdain said.

“They are very successful in the Duluth public school system as a result of being exposed to multiple languages,” he said, noting that he hears from former parents on how past students are doing. “It’s the opportune time for brain development and language acquisition.”

At a recent School Board meeting, Superintendent Bill Gronseth said the program would be a good way to begin improving the American Indian graduation rate.

“Knowing that it’s one of the lowest of the subgroups,” he said, “it would go a long way to improving our future.”

Jourdain, from Ontario, spoke Ojibwe before he spoke English. He also has an Ojibwe-fluent classroom assistant so students can hear regular conversation.

He teaches through a different lens, he said, taking the kids outside to demonstrate words.

“It’s a good way for language development,” he said. “If you’re talking about snow and it’s falling on their nose, they will live what it is; they are living the language. I am not teaching about it.”

While Duluth has not yet proposed a school for the class, plans are for between 15 and 20 students. The district would hire either a licensed teacher who speaks Ojibwe fluently or one who speaks it as a first language. The plan would include an assistant who speaks the language and comes in regularly. The proposed program eventually would consist of one class for each grade, adding one grade per year. For the first year, the cost would be roughly $153,000, with most of the money paying for the cost of the teacher — which already is allocated to the school — and the assistant. The rest would come out of state integration funds.

Aside from time with specialists such as a physical education teacher, the class would be taught entirely in Ojibwe.

Because the Ojibwe language doesn’t include numerals, numbers would be spelled out with words for the subject of math, for example.

Lydia Shinkle sends her daughter to the UMD language nest. She said she’d drive her wherever they place a class if it’s approved, and she knows of other parents who would.

“She is part Native American, and it is important to me that she has that link to her culture,” Shinkle said of her daughter, Natalia. “It’s something you can’t find anywhere else … We’re losing the language every day, and it’s important to preserve it for the next generation so she can teach others around her.”

Finding one teacher won’t be difficult, said William Howes, coordinator of the Duluth school district’s Office of Education Equity. Between UMD and the College of St. Scholastica, and beyond the Twin Ports, many programs are committed to producing licensed Ojibwe teachers, he said. Finding six might not be as easy, but with a staggered approach there would be time, he said.

“Much has been done and has happened to indigenous languages, but they are still alive and viable,” William Howes said.

Places such as federal boarding schools forced generations of American Indians to assimilate to white culture and prevented them from speaking their native languages.

“Everything within Ojibwe culture and tradition is within our language, just like any culture,” William Howes said. “As we begin immersion, we want to begin with the language spoken here first.”

CSUSB to Aid in Preservation of Serrano Language Through Course Offering

Kenneth Shoji, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – The ancient Native American language of Serrano, which was dying out as fewer and fewer native speakers of the language remained, has received a lifeline through the work of tribal people and academics.

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians (Yuhaviatam Clan of Serrano) signed a historic agreement with Cal State San Bernardino on Friday, May 24, to have the Serrano language taught at the university by San Manuel linguists and a tribal elder through CSUSB’s world languages and literature department.

“Serrano is a language that came close to extinction,” said CSUSB President Tomás D. Morales. “Now through this agreement, the Serrano language will not only be perpetuated, but also its use will be expanded.”

Under the agreement, San Manuel’s Serrano Language Revitalization Project staff will teach the Serrano language course series – Serrano 101, 102 and 103 – at Cal State San Bernardino for the academic year 2013-2014, in collaboration with Ernest Siva of the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center. The course will cover the language, history and culture of the Serrano people. Along with CSUSB students, tribal citizens also will be able to take the Serrano course series through the university’s College of Extended Learning and receive college credit.

And, as part of the agreement, the tribe’s sponsorship in providing the instructors and curriculum for the course will be considered as a donation to the CSUSB Philanthropic Foundation.

“As we increasingly become an academic center that supports and encourages tribal heritage, we want to continue to build our relations with our native partners,” Morales said. “We want the tribal members of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians to feel CSUSB is their home. We also want to extend that feeling of welcome to other tribes in our region.”

“It is my belief that our identity as Serrano people is rooted in our land, our culture and our language, each an aspect of the Serrano world connecting us to all that has passed before and all that is yet to come,” said San Manuel Chairperson Carla Rodriguez. “This course will allow Serrano Indian people and Cal State San Bernardino students an opportunity to bring new life to our ancient and sacred language.”

The Serrano Language Revitalization Program, a function of the San Manuel Education Department,  conducts regular, ongoing research to develop and publish Serrano resources, including a dictionary and grammar book. This process includes weekly field work with Ernest Siva and is directed by San Manuel Tribal Members, including Education Committee Chairman Paakuma’ Tawinat, who helped lead the tribal effort to establish the Serrano language course series.

“By being involved in the community through our educational outreach, San Manuel has found opportunities and partners to bring new vitality to the Serrano language and culture. On the reservation, we have made great strides to take a traditionally only-spoken language and create a modern written language,” Tawinat said. “The Serrano language is a very important part of our lives, and along with our traditions, it defines who we are as people. It is a great honor to share our language with students, to see it grow and preserve the memory of our ancestors.”

Siva, who has also taught prior courses on culture and language at CSUSB, agreed. “I’m honored to be involved in making the language available to anyone who wants to learn it. It’s kind of like a dream,” he said. “Who’d ever think it would happen?”

Siva grew up on the Morongo Indian Reservation, where he learned the Serrano language and serves as tribal historian and cultural adviser for the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. Siva, who has been a strong proponent for the preservation of American Indian culture, founded and serves as president of the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, which saves and shares all Southern California’s American Indian cultures, languages, history, music and other traditional arts.

Siva earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music education and choral music from the University of Southern California and serves as a distinguished guest artist in Native American culture at Cal State San Bernardino. Siva also serves on the board of directors of the California Indian Storytelling Association, the board of trustees of Idyllwild Arts, and the board of the Riverside Arts Council. He also is a member of the CSUSB Philanthropic Board of Directors and recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the university in 2009.

Morales said the university’s courses on cultural resource management, museum studies, geography and archaeology will focus on maintaining Native American cultural identity and protecting tribal autonomy to further cement the university’s commitment to work with American Indian tribes in the region.

The agreement is another part of the university’s ongoing effort to preserve Native American records.

Over the past year, Thomas Long, an associate professor in the CSUSB history department and its coordinator of public history and internships, has had his students digitize and catalogue the Mission Indian Federation records at the National Archives.

Long’s students also have been digitizing and cataloguing the St. Boniface Indian School records at the San Bernardino Roman Catholic Diocese archives. The archiving project will run through the summer and fall quarter of 2013. At its conclusion, a full copy-set of the materials will be delivered to the San Manuel archives.

In addition, Long’s students have been completing their internship work at the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, working on various projects aimed at the Serrano and Cahuilla culture preservation as well as other significant archival projects with tribal elder Ernest and his wife, June Siva.

Visit the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center website at

www.dorothyramon.org for more information, as well as the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians website at http://www.sanmanuel-nsn.gov/.

For more information on Cal State San Bernardino, contact the university’s Office of Public Affairs at (909) 537-5007 and visit news.csusb.edu.