How Ojibwe language classes are surviving the pandemic

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Bill Premo: I’ve noticed some people, like linguists, collect words.

Leah Lemm: Bill Premo is my father. My dad is a first speaker of Ojibwemowin.

Bill Premo: Ojibwe words.

Leah Lemm: He lives in central east Minnesota close to tribal lands.

Bill Premo: They collect them like butterflies and put them under glass. And they show people. “Look it, I know this word, look it here. This word is mine now.”

Leah Lemm: It’s very much him and his dog Kek kek. Kek kek means Hawk in Ojibwemowin. They live out in the woods. He’s retired, but he’s busier than ever with helping folks learn language, learn Ojibwemowin which is the language of the Ojibwe people.

Bill Premo: I like to watch the young people that learn — learn the language — and they don’t do that. They kind of mumble the word a couple times and then forget it, and mumble it again and come back. And pretty soon they can’t wait for that perfect time to use a word that they’ve learned. And once they do that, then that word is theirs.

Patrick Cox: What does he mean by that, “That word is theirs,” Leah?

Leah Lemm: When you start to learn a new language and you start to dream in the language, I think that’s what he means when it becomes theirs. They can use it without reservation, almost like you have a skill like playing the piano. You know, it’s something that you can sit down and play freely after a while of practice. You’re practicing this word. And then eventually it becomes yours, to express on command whenever you like.

The way we use language is, a lot of it’s used in ceremony, funerals and when we’re together. So a lot of those events and get-togethers were postponed, let’s say, because we want to make sure to protect our elders from COVID-19. So in that respect, my dad had to adjust.

There was a bit of COVID that went around and quite a few elders passed away from COVID with our tribe. So acquaintances and community members did pass away.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: stories about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Patrick Cox. In this episode, how did the Ojibwe language survive the pandemic?

Leah Lemm: OK, do you want to ask me? Or should I just go?

Patrick Cox: No, I think you should just go.

Leah Lemm: OK. Boozhoo, Leah Lemm indizhinikaaz, Windigookwe indigoo, Misi-zaaga’iganing indoonjiba, bizhiw nindoodem. Hello, I’m Leah Lemm, that’s my English name. I’m from the Mille Lacs Band Ojibwe, and my clan is the Lynx clan, and I also said my Ojibwe name in there as well: Windigookwe.

Leah Lemm: So we have a larger nation, the Ojibwe nation that extends Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Canada. And then we have the Minnesota Chippewa tribe which is made up of several bands, and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is part of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. And then there are families of Ojibwe. They’re named after different animals. They’re just more like closely related families. So you don’t you don’t marry your cousin. You don’t want that.

Patrick Cox: Estimates vary but there may be as many as 60,000 people in North America speaking Ojibwemowin, the Ojibwe language. Most are in Canada. In the US, it’s fewer than 10,000. Only a fraction are fluent speakers. An even smaller fraction are first speakers, and most of them are like Leah’s father, old enough to be grandparents. Leah’s first language was English.

Leah Lemm: I‘ve been a student of the Ojibwe language off and on. It is a very difficult language to learn, at least for me. I also took Spanish in high school, did the five years of Spanish. And there’s so many similarities between Spanish and English. But Ojibwemowin has just a different world view. It’s very action-based and very descriptive. I would say that learning Spanish is like learning something new, learning something as a tool. And learning the Ojibwe language is more like remembering something: remembering my connection to the land and to my ancestors and a way of understanding my connection to the world more.

There was a significant disturbance in our history of language and culture that created kind of a brief forgetting of the language — or a detachment from the language that we’re working to reconnect with. Because it is our language even if we can’t speak it. There is, you know, a lot of history there with boarding schools and assimilation. That part of history that colonizers attempted to strip from us kind of successfully, but ultimately unsuccessfully because we’re reconnecting created this disturbance. So, yeah, I’m — I’m remembering the language.

Patrick Cox:

Adversity breeds determination. Covid has now brought more adversity. And more determination to overcome it. Covid has cast a broad shadow on the Ojibwe people, and their efforts to retain the language. I started asking Leah about that a few months ago. She started interviewing people in her linguistic community.

Leslie Harper introduces herself in Ojibwemowin.

Leah Lemm: You just heard Leslie Harper. Leslie Harper is a citizen of the Leech Lake band of Ojibwe, and that’s up here in northern Minnesota.

Leslie Harper: I learned to speak our language as an adult, I started working on it, very focused. I have been a teacher. They said, well, if we have to close down our childcare setting or school setting where kids were learning the language– well, we’re like, we’re not giving up, we’re not stopping.

Leah Lemm: Leslie lives and breathes Ojibwemowin, and she knows she has responsibility to the language. It’s not even, like, a question.

Leslie Harper: And we started to look at, can we focus on what’s going on in the homes? That’s been a fun pandemic pivot. And that kind of accelerated this parental generation of learning Ojibwe. If people had their kids at home from school, they had even more impetus to learn Ojibwe language, to help their kids out with their Ojibwe language classes.

Leah Lemm: Having my child home, I felt helpless, really. Because there’s already so much that we needed to adjust to. Like, you know, he’s got to get his little science project done or his math homework or, you know, all of this stuff. And it’s like, where does Ojibwe fit into this? So I have to do my own learning and then share it with him. It’s like I bring it back to the piano again because I play piano. And my son also plays music. And what I find is when he sees me playing, that’s when he wants to play in practice. He’ll like, scooch me off the piano, like, “Oh, my turn.” And I’m like, “But I was playing.” But it gets him to play. So I feel like a lot of that is similar to learning language at home.

Patrick Cox: How did you do that during the pandemic? As a family learning?

Leah Lemm: So we struggled a bit. But there were people who started. Presenting on Facebook Live or on YouTube.

Patrick Cox: A lot of families made this shift to studying together online. And Ojibwe teachers who were still learning like Leslie Harper — they did too.

Leslie Harper: So we’ve created, there are some places where some of us are hanging out online. And we intently created a community where we had to, you know, speak Ojibwe where before, pre pandemic, we were like, yeah, that’d be a good idea. Yeah. See you next time. It was this idea, but we finally did it.

Patrick Cox: After the break, the other reality of the pandemic.

Anton Treuer: Covid’s been hard. We estimate 20 percent of our fluent speakers died during the pandemic.

Patrick Cox: Jumping in here to tell you about another podcast you might check out: It’s called All Ears English. This is a great podcast for anyone looking for a new and fun way to learn American English. Hosts Lindsay McMahon and Michelle Kaplan will help you navigate vocab and idioms and– very important– American English small talk. All Ears English is an English as a Second Language podcast for intermediate to advanced English learners around the world. But frankly, I — a native English speaker — I have started listening and I’m learning a ton too. Join the community to learn to speak American English as if you were born in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. As Lindsay and Michelle say, it’s about connection not perfection. Subscribe to All Ears English wherever you are listening right now.

Anton Treuer: My name’s Anton Treuer. My Ojibwe name is Waagosh and I’m professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University. The language is something that I try to center in my life and try to think in and use with as many things as possible in my life. I’m really privileged in that I get to use the language every day at work. So, I teach our language. I get to use the language a lot in our ceremonial space, going around to drum ceremonies and medicine dances and other things. And those are places where there’s still the really rich language environment.

Patrick Cox: Leah, it sounds like those kinds of events that Anton Treuer is talking about, they wouldn’t have taken place during the pandemic.

Leah Lemm: Yeah. And that was a giant adjustment. But those events being postponed were very important to protecting our elders. That was a huge priority. But there are great workarounds. And Anton Treuer had actually been teaching virtually, or having this option. He calls it “hy-flex.” So,a hybrid-flexible classroom and he was already doing that for years. And then the pandemic hit and he saw enrollment go up. With his courses, which is pretty cool.

Patrick Cox: Does he know why?

Leah Lemm: Yeah. He teaches at Bemidji State. It’s an option to take the class without having to drive an hour back and forth. So just having the option without committing to hours and hours a week. The next person I talked to actually participated in Anton Treuer’s hy-flex classroom pre-pandemic. Benay is a junior at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and she’s majoring in Ojibwe. You can get a bachelor’s in Ojibwe language.

Benay: I didn’t really get to finish my first full freshman year. We were sent home in the spring. I was in the first year. It was really different once we switched to online — when you’re not actually seeing everybody in person. When you’re just alone.

Leah Lemm: Going to college was one of the highlights of my life, and I cannot imagine being a student during the pandemic. So much of school changed for students and most of Benay’s undergraduate career is during a pandemic. So despite all the teachers doing their best to bring people together virtually, it’s just not the same. The college experience isn’t the same. And so, like Benay says, you just feel alone.

Benay: I’m taking a language-learning theories class right now. We are just learning about how important it is to not just learn the concepts and the grammar and everything and take your notes, but to actually have — what is it called? Positive evidence, I think, when you’re actually hearing it being used in context and with examples and conjugating words to talk about things that are in front of you. That’s what’s going to solidify all of the other things that you learn in class.

Patrick Cox: It sounds like Benay’s picking up a bunch of stuff, but they’re fundamentals, right? They’re not the contextual way of learning as she talks about like in the real world. Is that what has been missing for her and other students right now?

Leah Lemm: She talked about positive evidence, which is learning in the environment. But when you, like, physically can’t do that — when we are trying to protect one another from a deadly disease — we know that there’s language loss. We’re losing elders. And in a pandemic, you use what you have.

Patrick Cox: Right. And you say we’re losing elders. I mean, how has the effort to maintain this teaching, which elders are so much a central part of — that they take the lead in — been possible while at the same time protecting elders from contact with other human beings who may be contagious?

Anton Treuer: We did not want to get them sick.

Leah Lemm: This is Anton Treuer again.

Anton Treuer: And some of our big work projects where we were convening 50 people or more to work on books, we had to break down into isolated small person teams and adjust and slow down some of the work. I think the elders are pretty adaptable to that — but some more than others. We had to change our ceremony environment and we had to truncate or limit attendance. Our people are communal. And these are gathering places for all of our people, that made that a really tough adjustment for some people. Requiring vaccines was contentious, but something we did in ceremony space. Also, the losses that we suffered were just tremendous. We’ve been worried all along about every single sacred carrier of our language, anyways. And this really shook us, with the losses and the fear of loss. To protect some of our elders who do things like officiated funerals, some of our younger people had to step up and do more officiating before they even felt ready or would’ve done so otherwise. In some ways that made some people for us, so there were some positive consequences. But it’s not like I would do the pandemic all over again.

Leah Lemm: That’s a theme of this pandemic: balancing despair and hope. That’s not far off from our language and making sure that our language survives — and it survives through us, and we survive through it, through the language. If we want to continue, we need to bring the language into the future as well.

Patrick Cox: And how is that happening?

Leah Lemm: What I really love is a book project done as a collaboration with the Mille Lacs of Ojibwe and the Minnesota Historical Society with the Aanjibimaadizing Project. And it’s a series of books all in Ojibwemowin — like, entirely in Ojibwemowin. It’s not like one page here is in Ojibwemowin and one in English. It’s all Ojibwemowin. And my dad had several stories with that. And there is artwork done by Ojibwe artists and translation work. The editor for that was Anton Treuer.

Anton Treuer: I remember Joe Naquonabey Sr, who lost his brother to a heart attack after his COVID infection — it was related to COVID although it wasn’t a COVID cause of death. He lost a sister to COVID and a number of friends. And I thought he would be saying, “This has been the worst time of my life.” And he got up there and he said, “You know, having all of these young people coming around and working on these books and just seeing what we were able to do, I think working on these books was the best time of my life.” And I just — I couldn’t believe that he would have that kind of grace, but also that — it was a realization. Something that I’d kind of known, but could just feel more deeply: doing language work is healing for the language speakers — not just for the learners who are trying to learn about themselves and connect to these things, but it’s healing for them too.

Rosetta Stone promo

Patrick Cox: Another big project is a collaboration with language-learning software company Rosetta Stone, announced just a couple months ago.

Rosetta Stone promo: “Our language experts and the Rosetta Stone project team have been working together to create easy-to-use lessons that combine videos, photos and community members’ voices to provide a rich learning experience.”

Patrick Cox: Rosetta Stone has committed to developing a series of courses. They’ll be free to all members of the Mille Lacs Ojibwe band, which also owns the copyright and licensing rights. And yes, one of the voices is Bill Premo, Leah’s dad.

Leah Lemm: He’s having a really good time doing it. He gets to go to a nice, cool studio where he gets to talk into a fancy microphone and talk to people virtually. And then he gets to be on site with, you know, cameras and a lot of action happening and feel a little bit like a movie star.

Clip of Bill Premo speaking Ojibwe in a Rosetta Stone lesson.

Anton Treuer: if you’re Ojibwe, this is your language. This is your cultural patrimony. You have a right to be at the table and get access to it. If you’re Ojibwe — or not Ojibwe — you can still contribute. And you’re welcome in the circle and space to help advance our language.

Leah Lemm: I, as a language learner, often feel kind of shy, kind of nervous about learning the language because, you know, I have a funny accent when I say it. I don’t say it quite right. You know, it’s not quite the same as an elder speaking. And of course, it’s not going to be. But these words that Anton Treuer shared with me, really helped me gain perspective in that my learning, the language is the important part.

So, Patrick, I’m going to leave the final word here with language revitalizer Leslie Harper.

Leslie Harper: There’s a part of being Ojibwe that says, Hey, we’re still here. We’re gonna make life. You know, we are here with each other and we’re gonna keep creating the world and keep creating the conditions for the world to keep going, because that’s just, like, ingrained in our teachings and our DNA.

Patrick Cox: Huh, that kind of reminds me of what your dad said right at the top of the episode about people making the Ojibwe words their own.

Leah Lemm: Those Ojibwe words are ours. As we’re able to connect with them — connect with our DNA and bring out that spirit in us — that is us speaking the language.

Patrick Cox: And that is it for this episode. Well, almost. I asked Leah to recommend some Ojibwe resources.

Leah Lemm: There is a person named James Vukelich who does an Ojibwe Word of the Day. He’s all over social media, I believe Facebook in particular. He introduces us to words and goes through some background, some history. So he’s a great resource. Again, James Vukelich. And there’s the University of Minnesota Ojibwe dictionary. You can input the Ojibwe word and find the English word, or you can input the English word and find the Ojibwe word. And of course, there’s the Ojibwe Rosetta Stone project. The first year is out. And then also the Aanjibimaadizing book project that we spoke about with the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe and the Minnesota Historical Society.

Patrick Cox: And we’ll post links to those organizations in our show notes and episode transcript. Big thanks to Leah Lemm, who is a woman of many talents: journalist, podcaster, musician! Here she is singing with her band, Molecular Machine.

Molecular Machine song (vocals start a minute or so in)

Patrick Cox: Thanks to all the people Leah spoke with. Thanks also to Lindsay VanSomeren, and to everyone at the Linguistic Society of America.

Tina Tobey is our sound designer. Allison Shao manages our social media and newsletter.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub and Spoke audio collective. We’re a group of podcasters who seek out untold stories about people and history and culture, and of course language. Another Hub and Spoke podcast is The Briny. This is a podcast about how we’re changing the ocean, and how the ocean changes us. In the latest episode, a sea turtle conservation group builds a distillery to keep their operation afloat. Their hope is that creating jobs could be a way to fight the root causes of turtle poaching. Check out The Briny and all the Hub and Spoke podcasts.

Don’t forget to rate and review us wherever you listen. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks. See you then.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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