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First Speakers: Restoring the Ojibwe Language wins Midwest Emmy


Eugene Stillday from Ponemah is much involved in a variety of ways to revitalize Ojibwemowin.

Twin Cities Public Television (tpt) recently announced that on September 25, the station was awarded an Upper Midwest Emmy for First Speakers: Restoring the Ojibwe Language, a documentary funded through Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment. (Watch the program now on your computer, see link below)

First Speakers follows a new generation of Ojibwe scholars and educators racing against time to save one of Minnesota’s native languages. tpt had received received 26 nominations in 20 different categories for the Upper Midwest Emmy® Awards.

A language is lost every fourteen days. One of those endangered tongues is Minnesota’s own Ojibwe language. Now this new generation of educators are working with the remaining fluent-speaking Ojibwe elders, hoping to pass the language on to the next generation. But can this language be saved? Told by Ojibwe elders, scholars, writers, historians and teachers, this tpt original production is filled with hope for the future.

As recent as World War II, the Ojibwe language (referred to as Ojibwemowin in Ojibwe) was the language of everyday life for the Anishinaabe and historically the language of the Great Lakes fur trade. Now this indigenous language from where place names like Bemidji, Biwabik, Sheboygan, Nebish, and Mahnomen received their names is endangered.

The loss of land and political autonomy, combined with the damaging effects of U.S. government policies aimed at assimilating Native Americans through government run boarding schools, have led to the steep decline in the use of the language. Anton Treuer, historian, author and professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University and featured in First Speakers: Restoring the Ojibwe Language, estimates there are fewer than one thousand fluent Ojibwe speakers left in the United States, mostly older and concentrated in small pockets in northern Minnesota with fewer than one hundred speakers in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Dakota combined.

Treuer is a part of a new generation of Ojibwe scholars and educators who are now racing against time to save the language and the well-being of their communities. Narrated by acclaimed Ojibwe writer, Louise Erdrich, First Speakers tells their contemporary and inspirational story. Working with the remaining fluent Ojibwe speaking elders, the hope is to pass the language on to the next generation. As told through Ojibwe elders, scholars, writers, historians and teachers, this tpt original production reveals some of the current strategies and challenges that are involved in trying to carry forward the language.

First Speakers takes viewers inside two Ojibwe immersion schools: Niigaane Ojibwemowin Immersion School on the Leech Lake Reservation near Bena, Minnesota and the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion Charter School on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation near Hayward, Wisconsin. In both programs, students are taught their academic content from music to math entirely in the Ojibwe language and within the values and traditional practices of the Ojibwe culture. Unique to the schools is the collaboration between fluent speaking elders and the teachers who have learned Ojibwe as their second language.

Larry Stillday is interviewed for the film at his Healing Lodge in Ponemah.

First Speakers: Restoring the Ojibwe Language provides a window into their innovative and intergenerational learning experience and the language they are determined to save.

Red Lake’s fluent speakers Eugene Stillday, Anna Gibbs, Rose Tainter, Susan Johnson, and Larry Stillday are featured prominently in the production. Much of the documentary was filmed on the Red Lake Indian Reservation at Ponemah. Michael Meuers (Red Lake Public Relations and Bemidji’s Ojibwe Language Project) and Shared Vision received recognition in the closing credits.

Those interest can got to the TPT First Speakers website where they can watch the program for free. Here’s the link: DVD’s are expected to be available soon.


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