- Associated Press - Sunday, November 30, 2014

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. (AP) - It’s almost naptime in the toddler room at the preschool building known as the Sasiwaans, part of a cluster of buildings on the Isabella Indian Reservation.

The lights dim, gentle music plays and classroom volunteers soothe the children to sleep. Holding a child in her arms, Jackie Ortiz sings quietly in Michigan’s oldest language, the Lansing State Journal (http://on.lsj.com/11wU3zb ) reports.

Sasiwaans means “nest” in the Anishinaabe language once spoken widely by Michigan’s Chippewa, Ottawa and Potowatomi Indians, and the tiny children who are nurtured here could hold the future of the vanishing tongue.

“This is preservation of our identity, that’s who we are,” said Angela Peters, interim director of language revitalization for the Saginaw Chippewa tribe. “Once we revitalize our language, we revitalize our cultural teachings.”

The Saginaw Chippewa tribe has about 3,700 members today. But a survey of a sample of members conducted in 2005 found only two fluent speakers of the language.

The loss of language results mostly from a widespread effort in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to force Indians to assimilate to majority culture. Indian children were taken - sometimes forcibly - from their families and sent to boarding schools. They were forbidden to speak native languages, wear traditional clothing or worship according to their own customs. The boarding school in Mount Pleasant had 300 students and operated from the 1890s through 1934.

“So much has been lost over the years,” said Helen Roy, who has taught the Ojibwe language at Michigan State University, on the Isabella Reservation and around Michigan and Ontario. “The only ones that still have it are the ones that are in their 70s and 80s, and there are not very many of them left in Michigan at all.”

Roy grew up on Manitoulin Island, in Lake Huron, off the coast of Ontario. So did Isabelle Osawamick, who now is the language outreach specialist for the Saginaw Chippewas. In that isolated community, it was common to speak the Anishinaabe language at home.

It’s that immersion environment that the Saginaw Chippewas are trying to recreate in the Sasiwaans preschool classrooms. Whether they’re eating, sleeping or playing, adults speak to them only in the Anishinaabe language.

“After a few months, they totally comprehend it,” Osawamick said.

The tribe also conducts adult language classes and language classes are offered to older students as part of the curriculum in the tribal school. Adult helpers in the preschool also are learning the language themselves.

Three preschool classes are housed at the Sasiwaans building. The immersion kindergarten is a stone’s throw away in the Saginaw Chippewa Academy, a tribe-operated school.

Roy said the immersion school is a good step forward, but that a critical mass is important.

“The students can get discouraged because they learn it and they say, ‘I don’t have anybody to speak it with,’” Roy said. “Since there aren’t many speakers, we really can’t have that day-to-day, everyday situation where people who want to get the language back hear it all the time.”

The Anishinaabe language originally had no written component. Its sounds are roughly transposed into English by way of an alphabet that includes double vowels to signify sounds unique to the language. Certain consonants - F, L, R, Q - do not appear.

Roy said it’s important to teach more than the English approximation of the language because a true understanding of the language includes more than just words.

Osawamick says it’s hard to define, but describes it by shape. If the English language has a square shape, she said, the Anishinaabe language is circular.

“The language is very descriptive and we use our hands a lot,” Osawamick said. “The language depends on the situation. The same word can mean a different thing, depending on usage. Words are dependent on each other to convey a feeling.”

There are no separate words for “he” and “she.” The listener is expected to understand whether the object is a man or a woman through context. There’s also a division in the language between living and non-living objects, with the result not always what an English speaker might expect. A clock, for example, is a living thing, because it moves and tells time.

“You really have to take off your English hat” and put your mind in a different place, Osawamick said.

Both Roy and Osawamick say they have had students who have been able to do that. Once immersed in the Anishinaabe language, one of Roy’s MSU students found it much easier to understand the curriculum in her molecular biology class. And Osawamick said she believe the language immersion has helped the preschoolers connect with tribal traditions in a meaningful way.

“I know it works,” said Carol Bob, who teaches in that classroom. “I know the little ones will achieve their highest potential knowing their language, their culture, their heritage, their belief systems.”

___

Information from: Lansing State Journal, http://www.lansingstatejournal.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide