Mille Lacs Band launches Ojibwe-language books

By John Reinan, Star Tribune 

MILLE LACS RESERVATION – Near the end of her life, Lucy Clark felt a sense of melancholy.

“She was sad,” said her grandson, Steve Premo, “because she couldn’t hear the song of the language.”

Native Indian languages were suppressed for generations in Minnesota and elsewhere, to the point that fewer than 25 “first speakers” — those who speak a language from birth — remain in the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

But now Lucy Clark’s spirit can smile, because the band is bringing the song back to life. At a celebration earlier this month, the band launched five books written in its Ojibwe dialect.

Dozens of band members contributed to the project, including Premo, who provided illustrations. Others recounted Native stories and helped with vocabulary. Joe Nayquonabe, a first speaker, said the experience was “one of the happiest times of my life.

“Being with the elders, seeing their smiling faces and feeling like we’re a community,” said Nayquonabe, 77.

That’s the point of the effort, said Baabiitaw Boyd, the band’s senior adviser on language revitalization initiatives.

“We want to rebuild self-esteem and identity as an Anishinaabe person,” Boyd said, using a term referring to a broad group of culturally related Indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region. “One of the ways we’re doing that is through language revitalization, [to] give people empowerment to expand their knowledge of Anishinaabe practices, what it means to be in the Anishinaabe family.