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.
"We're super proud of it and we think it's a big success."
It would have been hard to find anyone at the book launch who disagreed. More than 100 people of all ages mingled and shared food at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum as they celebrated the book project and the elders who contributed their knowledge.
Children ran and played as proud contributors autographed copies of the books. Elders shared stories as old friends laughed and joked with one another, often in Ojibwe.
The book project was done under the umbrella of the band's Aanjibimaadizing division, which means "changing lives." It's another indication of the band's belief that language is a key to the overall improvement of its members' lives.
"I think it's very important, because our ancestors are the ones who taught us," said Carol Nickaboine, an 82-year-old first speaker. "Languages should not be forgotten," she added, chuckling as she noted that she even speaks Ojibwe to her cat.
Shirley Boyd was a workforce pioneer, leaving the reservation to drive trucks and loaders for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Boyd, also an 82-year-old first speaker, was among the first women and the first Indians in those jobs. She told her story in one of the books.
"I went out and worked in the white man's world," she said. "I had to — there was nothing here."
The books are published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, which has published 45 Ojibwe and Dakota books over the past two decades. The project took just under three years from conception to publication, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing much of the work to be done through online video calls.
Still, it was joyous experience, said Anton Treuer, who served as managing editor.
"We had to take a lot of laughter breaks," he said, chuckling as he recounted how grandchildren would be sent to help their grandparents sign on to Zoom calls.
"The team did an amazing job of putting out five books in less than three years in the middle of a pandemic," said Tammy Wickstrom, executive director of Aanjibimaadizing.
The difference between this and other publications of Ojibwe-language works is that these books are completely monolingual, and the press had to trust the band's team in putting together books that nobody on the publishing staff could read.
"I am a helper on this, not the visionary," said Ann Regan, the press' editor in chief. "And we are not in charge. We're working with people who are blazingly knowledgeable, competent and committed."
Humans didn't have writing for most of their history, Regan said. But now those oral traditions are in danger of being lost, making it crucial to preserve language in written form as the best way to pass it on to future generations.
"This is the heartbreaking part of this language work," she said. "Every time an elder dies, you lose a dictionary. If you don't write it down, you won't have material to teach people in the way they need to learn now."
The Ojibwe language is sacred to its people, said Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University and author of nearly 20 books on Indian language, culture and history.
"It's at the center of our identity," he said. "Our unique worldview is embodied in our language. For us, our language has to be at the center of any effort to live a long and healthy life."
The book projects were driven by the desire of the band's elders to preserve the heritage that was passed on to them by their ancestors, Treuer said.
"The elders made a pretty strong statement about what they value, and the young people are not just following it, they're leading it," he said.
"The goal is to teach speakers for hundreds of years to come."
John Reinan • 612-673-7402
John Reinan is a news reporter covering Greater Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. For the Star Tribune, he’s also covered the western Twin Cities suburbs, as well as marketing, advertising and consumer news. He’s been a reporter for more than 20 years and also did a stint at a marketing agency.
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