Aanjibimaadizing Ojibwe Language and Culture Revitalization Project
Worldwide, improved education and employment outcomes and greater life satisfaction have been linked to identifying and engaging in Indigenous cultural activities. This is especially true for at-risk adults and youth who have experienced the negative impacts of substance misuse, mental health issues, violence, chronic unemployment or incarceration. We estimate that at least 75% of our Aanjibimaadizing adult clients are in recovery from or struggling with addiction, and nearly 100% have experienced one or more of the other indicators listed.
1. The Mille Lacs Dialect of Ojibwe is an Endangered Language and must be preserved and revitalized in order to support prevention, recovery, and healthy lifestyle choices that promote Workforce Development for At-Risk Band Members, who comprise a majority of Aanjibimaadizing Clients.
Native languages and cultures are at a critical point in their existence due to the number of Elders and language speakers that have died as a result of the COVID-19 virus. The Mille Lacs Dialect of Ojibwe is an endangered language. In 2019, approximately 25 elders were identified as fluent speakers at Mille Lacs. Today, that number has decreased to approximately 19. Four fluent speakers passed away just this year. There are very few Ojibwe speakers left. Ojibwe language in Minnesota is listed as “severely endangered.” (UNESCO, 2010). Today Ojibwe is mainly spoken by elders over the age of 70. Even when not considering the continuing pandemic – COVID-19 disproportionality affects Indigenous communities, as well as the elderly – the number of first language speakers is expected to decline significantly in the next five years.
The language crisis in Native communities is so widespread that the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has drafted a resolution that will be voted on at its upcoming convention “Declaring Native American Languages in a State of Emergency and Support for an Executive Order on Native American Language Revitalization”. The resolution states, “NCAI acknowledges that Native Languages are in a State of Emergency, for the first time in the long history of Indian Nations the vast majority of the 574 federally recognized tribes no longer have active language communities. All existing Native Languages need immediate support at the local tribal , state, and national levels”. The resolution calls upon President Biden to pass an Executive Order promising to promote tribal language and culture in education systems impacting Native learners.
Native languages are more than just words, as cultural values, tribal customs, and ceremony are embedded in them (Mmari, Blum, Teufel-Shone, 2010). Additionally, Indigenous languages serve as protective factors for Indigenous communities. Studies demonstrate that people who speak their Native language(s) have enhanced mental health and happiness, measured by lower rates of suicide, suicide attempts, and suicidal ideation than those without language knowledge (Hallett, Chandler, & Lalonde, 2007; Ball & Moselle, 2013; Dockery, 2011). This is intended to support efforts to maintain and preserve Native languages, as these are connected to also preserving Native culture and wellbeing.
In many communities around the world, native languages are dying at an alarming rate. The effects of colonization and assimilation have taken their toll on the number of native language speakers and socioeconomic conditions have not made the task of retaining languages any easier. As time goes on, revitalization efforts of any size will become increasingly difficult. Professor Brian McInnes, and enrolled Ojibwe member in Wisconsin states, “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,” (Khintopf, 2021).
Psychology Professor Gary Lupyan studies how language influences people’s thoughts. His studies show that the language a person speaks determines which aspects of life they attend to and that language is also crucial to culture. Cumulative culture is the ability for a generation to start from a place of higher advancement by benefiting from their ancestors’ knowledge. Lupyan states 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.” Language has vital cultural ties, serving as a connection to historic songs and teachings (Khintopf, 2021).
At Mille Lacs, we know that gaining knowledge of our Ojibwe language and culture as well as participation in cultural activities has played a significant role in contributing to the recovery of those suffering from addiction, rehabilitation of Band Members after periods of incarceration, recovery of survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. Knowledge of language and culture builds confidence and self-esteem and positively correlate with many adult learners’ decisions to earn their GED’s, college diplomas and graduate degrees.
There are certainly Band Members who have succeeded in life or successfully overcome barriers without relying on language and culture, but the demographic profile of adult Band Members served by Aanjibimaadizing is sharply represented by people who have very low self-esteem, lack of pride in their identity and who are very disconnected with their culture. All of the research available and anecdotal evidence has proven that the most effective intervention for this specific population of indigenous people is to learn about their culture and language as a means of restoring pride in self and commitment to community, which then open the door to motivating a Band Member’s desire to put in the work to gain new skills, gain and sustain employment and to make healthy choices and change lives.
2. Knowledge of Native American Culture/Language strengthens the ability of Band Members to overcome barriers.
For the at-risk Native American population, study after study has proven that gaining a strong cultural identity and language knowledge has increased and improved physical and mental health outcomes and strengthened recovery from addiction, human trafficking, violence and incarceration. Cultural identity also buffers distress prompted by discrimination and other forces and supports new healthy lifestyle choices; all of which often lead directly to gaining new workforce skills, achieving and maintaining stable employment. Researchers have looked increasingly to culture to improve health behaviors, compiling more evidence that culture may prevent and treat health outcomes such as depression and substance abuse (Walters, Simoni, and Evans-Campbell 2002; Stone et al. 2006; Rieckmann, Wadsworth, and Deyhle 2004).
The federal government has authored or supported numerous studies through multiple federal agencies and research institutions finding a direct positive correlation between participation in Native American culture/language and increased positive health and socio-economic outcomes for those in Native communities who are struggling. Just some of these agencies include the Indian Health Service, Administration for Native Americans, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the National Institute of Health and many others.
Dr. Ursula Bauer, Director of the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP), has stated that data proves that in Native American communities, “Culture is Prevention. Naming ceremonies prevent heart disease; learning traditions and language support health and healthy choices; that connecting people to culture and heritage saves lives. By building esteem, grounding values, creating belonging, purpose and pride.” (Culture is Prevention, TEDMED Talk, April 6, 2016).
Studies have proven that of our at-risk population, those with higher levels of cultural engagement have been shown to be more self-sustaining, including lower incarceration rates. A positive cultural identity often provides a sense of purpose, self-worth, belonging, and social support to those in Native communities whose unhealthy choices have interfered with their education, employment and life satisfaction. The health benefits of participating in cultural activities and sustaining a strong cultural identity have been found to improve social and emotional wellbeing by enhancing self-esteem and resilience. This strengthens communities by building positive, culturally significant coping mechanisms, that facilitate life balance and protect against adverse life experiences including the impact of trauma and loss (Shepherd, Delgado, Sherwood, 2018).
3. Youth who have knowledge of their Native language and participate in culture tend toward higher educational attainment and lower rates of substance misuse, suicide and other risk factors.
Aanjibimaadizing offers vibrant youth programming, which will be a key audience for our Ojibwe Language and Culture Program. There is a tremendous body of research proving that lack of educational success is due, in part, to “cultural discontinuity”, or lack of a student’s knowledge of their own culture and language. (Cleary & Peacock, 1998; Huffman, 2001; Castagano & Brayboy, 2010). When the Congress passed the Native American Languages Act in 1990, the Congress found “convincing evidence that student achievement and performance, community and school pride, and educational opportunity is clearly and directly tied to respect for, and support of, the first language of the child and student” (p. 2). This does not mean that students who do not know their language cannot succeed; it means that researchers have proven that students who are fluent in their first language tend to be academically successful.
Researchers found in 2007 found that tribal groups with lower levels of language knowledge had six times more youth suicides than those with higher language knowledge (Hallett, Chandler, and Lalonde (2007). The correlation between positive self-identity, self-esteem and success among Native youth with knowledge of Native language and culture is very strong. A 2011 survey was done of educators and leaders about their perspective of educational success for Native students. The necessary qualities and indicators of an educational program that promote Native student success were: (1) Education is a holistic, multi-dimensional process; (2) The program recognizes the unique talents and gifts of students; (3) The program involves knowledge of Native culture, history, and language; (4) The program addresses health and wellbeing on multiple levels – mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical (5) The program builds the capacity to contribute to community (ChiXapkaid et. al, 2011).
Research also shows that language revitalization is a key empowerment tool for Native American communities. “Language learning confers cognitive advantages, enhances self-esteem and cultural well-being, and strengthens community bonds. As one indigenous language instructor put it, ‘Our language is the number-one source of our soul, our pride, our being, our strength, and our identity.’” (Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine: Saving America’s Endangered Languages, June 2007).
The majority of our Band member children attend public schools including Aitkin, McGregor, Hinckley-Finlayson, Isle, East Central, Onamia, and do not have adequate Ojibwe language learning opportunities. Through developing culture and language resources, however, we can reach more Band children and youth in the public-school systems. It is Aanjibimaadizing’s intention to partner with all local school districts serving the Band’s three districts to offer Ojibwe language-learning opportunities to as many Band children as possible.
OJIBWE LANGUAGE AND CULTURE STRATEGIC GOALS FOR 2021-2024
1. Preserve our endangered language by normalizing Ojibwe Language and cultural use in the community.
2. Support workforce development by creating life-long Ojibwe language learning opportunities.
3. Support development of client self-esteem, pride in identity and wellness that contributes to workforce readiness by offering life-long Ojibwe language and culture learning opportunities.
4. Support youth substance abuse prevention and support clients struggling with addiction or recovery as a barrier to employment through a language/culture program that promotes the daily use of Ojibwe language and expanded cultural as a means of improving self-esteem, pride in identity and workforce readiness.
Using a MLBO cultural framework to invest in workforce development benefits the entire community and has a multi-generational impact that benefits families. Holistically healthy people grow holistically healthier people, but hurt people continue to hurt people. The success of this program will be seen at the individual level first and then spread long-term to the community level. The resources, recording and videos will be accessible for multiple future generations. This investment is for the long-term support of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe to retain our unique identity, language (dialect) stories, and sovereignty.