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What some tribes in Michigan are doing to stop their native language from going extinct

Sep 29, 2015

Two year olds at the Sasiwaans language immersion school in Mt. Pleasant get a lesson in the Native American tradition of smudging
Credit Emily Fox / Michigan Radio

Anishinaabemowin is the language that was spoken by tribes in Michigan for millennia, and it’s near extinction in the state.

Many Michigan tribes don’t have any fluent speakers left, while those that do are only reporting between one to three fluent speaking elders.  

Michigan tribes are doing what they can to bring the language back.

Some are doing language immersion weekends.

Some are creating programs to learn Anishinaabemowin online.

A lot of tribes are teaching community language classes, or bringing it to the public schools and day care centers.

The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe in Mt. Pleasant only has one fluent Anishinaabemowin speaker, but they have been able to pool enough resources together to have a four-day-a-week early childhood language immersion school since 2009.

Isabelle Osawamick, with the Language Department for the Saginaw Chippewa tribe, says the teachers at the Sasiwaans Immersion School only speak in Anishinaabemowin. The language is used in class lessons and in every daily activity.

“Eating, getting ready, playing, writing, coloring, singing. Doing all these in the language. The natural approach to learning,” Osawamick says. 

She says with immersion, the kids start to understand Annishinabemowin quickly.

“I’ve seen them listen and in a matter of two months they comprehend 100%,” Osawamick says.  

Listen to Osawamick introduce herself in Anishinaabemowin below:

Sasiwaans has six fluent Anishinaabemowin speakers who are teaching these classes. And you might be thinking how did this school get six speakers, when the Saginaw Chippewa tribe only has one speaker left?

All of these teachers come from a reservation on Manitoulin Island, which is on the Canadian side of Lake Huron.

Osawamick grew up there.

She says because her Anishinabek community was so isolated on the island, the language was able to be preserved.

She says because her Anishinabek community was so isolated on the island, the language was able to be preserved.

“I learned English when I was five or six years old,” Osawamick says.

Unlike what Osawamick had growing up, the kids at Sasawaans Immersion School don’t have anyone to speak Anishinaabemowin with outside of school.

Angela Peters is the interim director of the Saginaw Chippewa Language Department. She says that’s something her department is working on.

“We have the immersion school, and we’ve started these children with a good base, now what?” Peters says. “I believe it’s a start to bringing the language back. It’s not the only answer.”

Language classes are offered in the community, but Peters says not a lot of people show up.

Osawamick has been doing home visits to help teach the parents, so they will start using words and phrases at home.

Osawamick says it took her five to six years to learn English, which is the same amount of time the Sasiwaans Immersion School has been around for.

She adds that the language has been disappearing for more than a century, and bringing it back isn’t going to happen overnight. 

Listen to/read this story to learn about the impact Native American boarding schools had on the Anishinaabemowin language.

Support for arts & cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the arts.