As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, it left a jarring impact on all aspects of life. For the Ojibwe nation which had already been struggling with revitalizing its language, the pandemic has presented new opportunities and challenges.
Professor Brian McInnes is an enrolled member of the Ojibwe nation and teaches the Ojibwe languages courses offered at the University of Wisconsin. McInnes has been involved in Ojibwe language revitalization for nearly 20 years.
The Ojibwe nation has a vast reach that surrounds the entire Great Lakes, McInnes said. Of Wisconsin’s 12 Indigenous reservations, six are Ojibwe.
“COVID really hurt us a lot,” McInnes said. “I think what it has also done is renewed our commitment and our passion to work harder for the future now.”
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The low prevalence of the Ojibwe language among some communities have been cause for concern, McInnes said. Some communities have very few master speakers left, which makes large-scale revitalization very difficult.
UW Professor Monica Macaulay studies linguistics and has spent her career working with Indigenous communities and their languages. Macaulay said a large factor in the shortage of master speakers is the boarding school system that was in place from the mid-1800s up to the 1970s.
“Children were taken to these schools, often against their parents’ wishes. They were often kidnapped, stolen and taken to these schools and forced to speak English,” Macaulay said. “It was an incredibly effective way of trying to wipe the languages out.”
Another more recent cause has been parents refraining from teaching their children Indigenous languages due to fears of their children having poorly developed English. Macaulay said this is a misconception and bilingualism will only benefit children.
Macaulay said COVID-19 has also posed a significant threat to the elders of Indigenous communities.
“This disease affects the elderly and they’re more at risk. Unfortunately, many of the speakers of these languages are elderly and so there have been a lot of tribes who have been losing not only valued members of their communities but expert speakers as well,” Macaulay said.
One such loss was Ojibwe elder and activist Edward Benton, who passed away in November. McInnes said Benton was one of Wisconsin’s greatest Ojibwe speakers and an incredible teacher of language and culture.
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“I began to visit with him almost every day outside a nursing home window, almost through the time of his death. And it was tough for elders like him because they couldn’t interact with people,” McInnes said.
The pandemic also forced the disruption of many revitalization programs, Macaulay said. Face-to-face programs that fostered language renewal were forced to go virtual or even shut down. Though, McInnes said he is confident these programs will make up any lost ground.
One importance of revitalizing Indigenous languages is social and linguistic justice, Macaulay said.
“The society that I, as a white person represent, tried so hard to get rid of these languages,” Macaulay said. “I have a certain set of skills and I really need to use them to undo whatever of that damage that I can.”
Like many Indigenous languages, Ojibwe is a source of identity for those who speak it. McInnes said speaking the language is equivalent to expressing who you are at your core — and that language is very connected to Indigenous thought.
UW Psychology Professor Gary Lupyan studies how people’s thoughts are influenced by language. Lupyan said the language a person speaks determines which aspects of life they attend to more.
Language is also essential to culture. Cumulative culture is the ability for a generation to start from a place of higher advancement by benefiting from their ancestors’ knowledge and Lupyan said language is a key part of this.
“In the absence of language, you can’t really have too much in the way of complex culture because so much of what we learn culturally, we learn through language,” Lupyan said.
McInnes said the Ojibwe language contains categorizations that reflect the nation’s values and allows for the linguistic productivity to adapt the language to changing times.
The language has important cultural ties, serving as a connection to historic songs and teachings.
“When you have that connection, you have a tremendous inner strength and you don’t ever have to question who you are or why you’re here because you have that within you,” McInnes said.
Ojibwe language revitalization efforts seek to protect the connection between the community and the language, McInnes said.
McInnes began teaching at an Ojibwe immersion school in Hayward, Wisconsin nearly 20 years ago. Immersion schools are designed to function the same as any other school, only with all instruction and communication happening in the target language, McInnes said.
“The gold standard in terms of methodology is always immersion,” Macaulay said. “If you can have children or at least young people immersed in the language, they’re going to just soak it up naturally.”
McInnes said watching the community of speakers grow in the classroom was a sign of hope and a demonstration of how rebirth and revitalization of the Ojibwe language can occur.
Outside of immersion, McInnes said a renewed interest in traditional ceremonies and family involvement in language events has contributed to language revitalization. For some, the pandemic has led to new opportunities to learn Ojibwe.
“I did see a lot more kinds of storytelling or language workshop events online and they were much more accessible to people,” McInnes said.
Macaulay said the work of “language warriors” is also critical to revitalization efforts. These are members of the community who dedicate their lives to renew the language, trying anything from classes to immersion and beyond.
The future of Ojibwe language revitalization may look more accessible through online tools, but the ideal would be to return to face-to-face interactions when possible. More immersion schools and families committing to Ojibwe as a first language are also a hope for the future, McInnes said. Finally, McInnes said the normalization of Indigenous languages among society was key.
“Let’s help frame the visibility of Indigenous languages everywhere at UW and in the state so they become normal,” McInnes said. “They become something we’re all comfortable seeing and that we all want to see grow into the future.”