Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia

Report date
September 2017

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

The progress we made through this Community Innovation grant can be seen in the number and nature of relationships grown with families across reservations, communities and urban areas. The families who participated in our building Ojibwe language project first connected through a digital learning community that relied on social media such as a private facebook group to anchor a group of learners in an online Ojibwe language class that took place three nights a week. The digital tools available to our language teacher and the use of facebook to update the group were instrumental to sustaining interest and social connection across great distances.
We relied heavily on social events such as local meet-ups and family language camps to strengthen relationships and increase the number of opportunities for families to speak more language with more relatives and friends. The social aspects of these language learning events were invaluable to the building up both content and context for Ojibwe language among our families. We played games, sang songs, read books, told stories, prayed, laughed, and ate together at summer camps and at participants' homes and local community sites. We worked with fluent speakers aged 13 to 83 who supported GIM staff and participants to use and appreciate language across generations and geographies (e.g., Fond du Lac/Duluth, Bemidji/Red Lake, Minneapolis, Hayward).
Our development of story books in Ojibwe has greatly contributed to our project's progress by providing our participating families with Ojibwe language texts to build on existing family literacy practices, and it has helped to strengthen our relationship with speakers and artists who contributed to the development of certain texts. Rather than translating English books into Ojibwe, our partnerships with speakers, authors, and illustrators enabled us to start building a body of work that is centered around Anishinaabe language and culture. Moreover, this work has the potential to extend our organization's reach to families outside of our initial project network, literally spreading the Word across Ojibwe country.

Key lessons learned

We learned about the importance of social relationships as systems of support and healing in language revitalization projects. For families, attending a summer camp is no small feat of organization and effort. Yet each camp was well attended by parents with children of all ages, and participants were enthusiastic and engaged. We believe that the focus on social interaction helped immensely in creating an atmosphere that was encouraging and adaptable to the needs and desires of our participating families. Occasionally, the participants' desire for social connections seemed to overwhelm the teachers' desire to focus on language. Yet, by letting the social needs of the group guide our programming, we were able to learn more about what our participants want to be able to do with language, which in turn guided our language teaching to better reflect the desires of the Ojibwe families.
The key lesson is that learning in intergenerational families cannot be full immersion. It is too harsh to change the language rules families have already established.
We had mostly families with babies and small toddles (1-3 years). These children mostly learned (mimicked) ojibwe language that was spoken by their peers,
and bulked when their parents used Ojibwe. They would respond in English and demand English at times from parents,
but when playing or listening to older children, they were happy to respond in Ojibwe. This is why the Teen helpers (immersion kids) from Waadookodaading were key in what we learned. These kids (11-12 years) have graduated out of the immersion program and are this year in English public school. We need to continue to hire and work with them in our families programs.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

The inclusive element of the community innovation process was most important to making progress in our work. We were very thoughtful and careful about which stakeholders to involve as our initial participants in the program because we wanted to work with people who already seemed to understand the problem we were trying to address -- growing Ojibwe language in the home, outside of school. By starting with families who already demonstrated a commitment to using more Ojibwe language at home (e.g., by having kids enrolled in immersion schools, by being part-time or full-time language teachers themselves, by participating in local language tables) the work was more of a collaboration with partner participants than a 'delivery of service'. This social engineering at the outset was also key to building and strengthening the relationships that resulted from the project. As families got to know one another, they found common ground in their experiences with language and life, and in their shared values and goals for their children.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

Both Mel Engman and Mary Hermes have language research backgrounds which allow us to draw on research from language learning in other contexts.
Combined with what we try and see in the Ojibwe family programs, this enables us to follow hunches in what might work.

Understanding the problem

This work has led to clarity on two fronts: (1) our concern that schools are not sufficient to bring language into the home has been validated, and (2) the need for innovation in multi-generational Ojibwe language programming is very great. Several of our participant families have children in immersion schools and while the children's language was strong, they found it difficult to incorporate the language into home life. Sometimes this was because of the parent's lower proficiency or because of a lack of precedent in using anything but English to do certain things in the course of daily family life. Sometimes, there may have been other factors at play as well. At our in-person meet-ups and summer camps, we found that families were hungry for more language and more ways to integrate it into daily life. Yet, teaching language for family use to a group of learners with vastly differing individual proficiencies and family practices proved to be very challenging. There is still a tremendous need for the creation of more opportunities for families to come together for language and for innovation in how to move families closer to their goal of family Ojibwe language use.

If you could do it all over again...

Small relationships taking small steps are really the big goal in the making. Don't be disappointed there isn't more and phenomenal growth in language immediately.
I was often frustrated and wanted more language being used! And this was not really a realistic goal. Small bits, mixed with English, not total Ojibwe immersion, was the attainable goal.

One last thought

We (Mel and Mary) are constantly humbled by the Bush Foundations willing to support us. This work is hard. I believe families learning, and teen to children is a real key.
We have a rare position as a non-profit to work between tribes, communities and within families, we are just starting after this year to get this going.
It is a long term and slow process of rebuilding language in families.