“Thank you for helping to save the world.”
That’s how Ojibwe language teacher Dan Jones greeted his beginners class after explaining that some believe an end to the language means the end of all things. By learning Ojibwemowin and keeping it alive, the Fond du Lac Tribal & Community College instructor said, his students could take credit for helping to save the Earth.
In this regard, the mission of Wiigwaas Press and the Birchbark House Fund is a big one.
In 2008, Heid and Louise Erdrich, both authors and sisters from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, founded the Birchbark House Fund “to support the work of indigenous language scholars and authors,” Heid Erdrich told Indian Country Today Media Network. In 2010 the two created Wiigwaas Press to publish books solely in the Ojibwe language. Heid oversees the day-to-day operations. Wiigwaas, or birch bark, seemed an appropriate name; the durable bark once served as the medium for delivering messages.
“That was our original writing material for the sacred literature as well as the personal stories,” said Erdrich. “Birch bark was also used for messages such as, ‘We went thataways.’ It was the ‘sticky notes’ of the Ojibwe.”
The sisters first discussed a need for an Ojibwe-language press when Louise helped Mille Lacs Band elder Jim Clark write his autobiography. In 2002 she published that book, Naawigiizis, The Memories of Center of the Moon, through her Minneapolis bookstore, Birchbark Books.
“James Clark has written both in English and in Anishinaabemowin,” Heid Erdrich said. “But the language doesn’t translate precisely.”
Louise and Heid remember hearing the language as children, though not in casual conversation.
“I heard my grandfather speaking his prayers in Ojibwemowin,” said Heid. “I think I knew three or four words as a child.”
In a 2010 interview with Bill Moyers, Louise said she grew up thinking that Ojibwemowin was like Latin—a ceremonial language, not a conversational one. Then she heard people speaking it and laughing in a store, and she wanted to get the jokes. Now both of the sisters are learning.
Opportunities to speak and hear indigenous languages are increasingly rare, said Anton Treuer, member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University. Of 183 aboriginal languages in Canada, only 20 are spoken regularly by children, and only four have large numbers of speakers, he said.
“Ojibwe is one of those four,” Treuer said, but added that it has not fared as well farther south. “In the United States we’re down to around a thousand speakers, most of them elders around 70.”
Yet Treuer sees successes with students in the Maoritanga school system in New Zealand, nearly 100 percent of whom again speak Maori, and in Hawaii, where the number of fluent speakers rose from 500 to about 15,000, though it took almost 30 years.
“We are a couple of light years behind them, but we are trying to move as fast as we can,” he said.
Immersion schools, where teachers speak only Ojibwemowin to students, show strong results; they even improve children’s English and math scores, Treuer said. A handful of such schools operate in Wisconsin and Minnesota. In this regard, publishers like the Mohawklanguage Kanyen’keha Books and Wiigwaas Press are critical.
“To be effective, we need materials,” Treuer said. Immersion teachers agree. They told him, “We need vocabulary for teaching math and science and social studies, and we also need books to read to the kids.” Thanks to a Minnesota Humanities Center grant, Treuer gathered, as he puts it, “some Jedi masters of the Ojibwe language and some good second-language learners and scholars.”
Working with fluent-speaking elders, the team developed original stories that are neither rehashed Mother Goose nor traditional legends told only during certain seasons. “Once we got rolling, it turned out to be very productive,” Treuer said. “We developed about 20 stories in just a few days.”
One example came from elder Nancy Jones. As a child, whenever she complained about chores, she was told, “I’m giving you a white hair [wisdom].” That turned into the story of an immature eagle, or migiziins, who gets a white feather each time he helps others and whose head thus turns white, the sign of a mature bald eagle. Since these stories were only in Ojibwemowin, the question arose of how to publish them.
“As soon as we pitched the idea to Heid, she believed,” said Treuer. “They produced a first-class, high-quality book.”
It was precisely the type of project that Heid had envisioned for Wiigwaas Press. Executive Director Jim Cihlar and designer Steve Foley worked with Ojibwe artist Wesley Ballinger to create Awesiinyensag, sold through Birchbark Books. The press’s second title—a language book for adults by Dennis Jones, a teaching specialist at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities—came out last summer.
“My teachers said the language is alive, and we are part of that life, the life of the language when we speak the words or even when we write the words,” said Heid Erdrich. “We hope for its well-being and respect it as a relative.”
Moreover, “we have a responsibility to help the language live,” she added. “I feel strongly that there’s knowledge in our language [that] everyone will need to survive. We need to share with it and give it our strength.”
With that strength, the world may yet be saved.