University of Minnesota faculty push for Ojibwe, Dakota languages to become majors

Some faculty members within the University of Minnesota’s Department of American Indian Studies are trying to preserve two languages indigenous to the state.

Currently, students don’t have the option to major in Ojibwe or Dakota, the two languages offered within the department. But with a recent push from veteran and new professors, students may eventually be able to major in the languages.

Brendan Fairbanks, a long-serving assistant American Indian studies professor, said creating the option to major in each of the languages would allow students studying the languages to receive better jobs after graduation and would ensure the languages stay alive.

If the languages remain used, she said students who know them “can go on to teach their children the language.”

University students can currently receive teaching certificates — named the Dakota Iapi Unspewicakiyapi and the Ojibwemodaa Eta! certificates — that allow them to teach the languages at immersion schools.

Still, some say the creation of new major programs for the languages could be beneficial.

Michelle Goose, who’s entering her first year in the department as a teaching specialist, said making the languages into their own separate majors is important so that students can make good use of what they learn.

“We need to make the language more relevant to students,” she said. “We need to make it something they can use in their daily lives.”

Professors in the department hope developing the language track into two new majors will make the program more appealing to prospective students.

Because there isn’t a large demand for Dakota and Ojibwe immersion school teachers in the state, the job market is highly competitive, said former University student Liz Cates, who received her Dakota teaching certificate last spring.

Though she currently works as a teacher at a local immersion school, Cates said entering the job force with a degree in Dakota would have been helpful when she was searching for jobs.

Cates also said that having specific majors for the languages will help preserve them and allow instructors to better teach them to elementary students in immersion schools.

“The more Dakota and Ojibwe students who can major in their languages, the more able they are to bring their gifts of speaking and teaching the language back to our communities,” she said.

The process of creating the majors is still in the early stages, department chair Jean O’Brien said, though faculty members have big plans for the languages.

“We have a real need for revitalization of the language as well as making sure it gets taught in every context it needs to be at the higher level,” O’Brien said.

According to the American Indian studies department’s website, there was estimated to be only about 678 first-language speakers of the Ojibwe language and eight first-language speakers of the Dakota language within those communities in Minnesota in 2009.

Because of the sharp decline in people who speak the languages, Cates said it’s important to keep the languages alive.

“Any step that can be made to increase accessibility and intensify language learning should be made without hesitation, as time is running out,” Cates said.

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