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.”

Feds say Native Mob gang dented but work remains

Federal prosecutors say they’ve weakened a violent American Indian gang known for terrorizing people in the Upper Midwest now that an alleged leader and two members have been convicted in one of the largest gang cases to come out of Indian Country.

By Steve Karnowski, Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Federal prosecutors say they’ve weakened a violent American Indian gang known for terrorizing people in the Upper Midwest now that an alleged leader and two members have been convicted in one of the largest gang cases to come out of Indian Country.

But investigators acknowledge their work isn’t done in Minnesota or other states where the Native Mob is active, noting that the gang has been around for a long time.

“We have some conservative confidence that we did put a dent (in the gang) but we’re also very realistic and know that law enforcement will continue to pursue gang activity including the Native Mob,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter said after jurors handed down convictions Tuesday on an array of racketeering and other charges.

“The verdicts reflect the seriousness of the crimes that were being committed by the Native Mob, which includes not only drug trafficking, but discharging of firearms at innocent people, and trafficking firearms, and basically wreaking havoc through communities throughout the state of Minnesota,” he said.

A federal jury in Minneapolis convicted the alleged Native Mob leader, 34-year-old Wakinyon Wakan McArthur, on drug and weapons charges – but also on a charge of racketeering conspiracy, which is often used to target organized crime.

Two of the gang’s alleged “soldiers” – Anthony Francis Cree, 26, and William Earl Morris, 25 – also were convicted of multiple charges including attempted murder in aid of racketeering. The latter charge stemmed from the shooting of another man that prosecutors alleged McArthur ordered, though his attorneys disputed the claim and McArthur was acquitted on that charge. But only Morris was acquitted on the top racketeering charge.

Defense attorneys said the government’s case was overblown, arguing that while gang members may have committed individual crimes, there was no evidence to support racketeering charges alleging the trio was part of a large, organized criminal group.

The three men were the only defendants who rejected plea deals after 25 people were indicted in the case last year. Several of those individuals testified during the trial, which Winter said should give other gang members pause knowing they can’t trust their co-conspirators.

A sentencing date has not yet been set, but all three men face between 20 years and life in prison, prosecutors said.

“The Native Mob has been a real detriment to native American communities throughout the state of Minnesota,” fellow prosecutor Steve Schliecher said. “Their game plan is to promote fear, and that’s the base of their power, and I think their power is diminished by this jury’s verdict. It’s going to allow people to have the rights to not live in fear, to continue on their peaceful lives.”

McArthur’s attorney, Frederick Goetz, said his client’s acquittal for attempted murder indicates the jury recognized the three defendants’ culpabilities varied.

“It was a mixed result for a mixed verdict,” Goetz said, adding that he would likely appeal.

Cree’s attorney, John Brink, said the verdicts were inconsistent, giving them an issue to use in their appeal.

Morris’ attorney, Tom Shiah, cited the same issue about inconsistent verdicts. He said he was glad Morris was acquitted of the racketeering charge but acknowledged his client was still “looking at a boatload of time.”

Federal authorities say they’ve been investigating the Native Mob, though not these three defendants, since 2004, and have now secured 30 convictions since 2007.

In the latest case, investigators said they were targeting a criminal enterprise that used intimidation and violence to maintain power. Prosecutors said the case was important not only because of its size, but because the racketeering charge is rarely used against gangs.

The 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment called the Native Mob one of the largest and most violent American Indian gangs in the U.S., most active in Minnesota and Wisconsin but also in Michigan, North Dakota and South Dakota. It is made up of mostly American Indian men and boys, and started in Minneapolis in the 1990s as members fought for turf to deal drugs. The Native Mob is also active in prison.

The Native Mob had about 200 members, with a structure that included monthly meetings where members were encouraged to assault or kill enemies, or anyone who showed disrespect, according to the indictment. Authorities said McArthur would direct other members to carry out beatings, shootings and other violent acts to intimidate rivals.

The trial, which began in January, included nearly 1,000 exhibits and 180 witnesses.

Associated Press writer Amy Forliti contributed to this story.