Preserving the Ojibwe Language

Larry Smallwood

Ojibwe is the heritage language of more than 200,000 people in the U.S. and Canada. And yet, today, there are fewer than 1,000 fluent speakers of Ojibwe in Minnesota. But that could soon change, thanks to the online Ojibwe People's Dictionary.

The searchable, talking, Ojibwe-English dictionary website is a project of the faculty and students of the University of Minnesota's Department of American Indian Studies. Funded by a series of grants beginning in 2010, the dictionary goes far beyond standard written entries to include the voices of Ojibwe speakers pronouncing words and using them in sentences. Also included are Ojibwe materials in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, such as cultural and historical items, photographs and documents.

Reaching out to revitalize a language

Indigenous languages are in decline throughout the world—a troubling fact for scholars and linguists who equate the importance of maintaining language diversity to that of biological diversity. With this in mind, the Ojibwe People's Dictionary is a tangible way for the University's scholarly community to engage with the public to maintain and revitalize an endangered language.

Offering more than 60,000 audio clips along with an eventual 30,000 written entries, the online talking dictionary is one of many public engagement initiatives focused on deepening the connection between important community issues and the research, teaching and outreach work of the University's five campuses.

A community effort

The talking dictionary builds on the work of John Nichols, a linguistics professor at the University. For years, Nichols, has been digitally recording Ojibwe elders as part of a research grant funded by the National Science Foundation's Endangered Languages Program. His goal was to expand "A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe," which he co-authored with former Bemidji State University Professor Earl Nyholm, in 1995.

As time went on, though, Nichols anticipated the need for a talking dictionary. And during discussions with University historian Brenda Child, as well as Marcia Anderson, a curator at the Minnesota Historical Society, his vision began to take shape. "The dictionary is a very unique, scholarly resource in that unlike a scholarly paper it will be widely used by the public, including students of all ages who are learning to speak Ojibwe," says Child, who chairs the Department of American Indian Studies and is a historian in the Department of American Studies.

Advancing engagement through technology

In many ways, says Child, the Ojibwe People's Dictionary is a "digital humanities project" through which scholars can communicate research to the public. At the same time she points out that the dictionary would not have been possible without close collaboration with the Ojibwe community.

Ojibwe speakers, many of them elders like 80-year old Eugene Stillday of Ponemah, Minn., contributed countless hours of audio to the project. Now, thanks to new technology that made it possible to embed digital audio within dictionary entries, their voices can now be heard by those interested in learning the language or just finding out more about Ojibwe culture and history.

Currently, Ojibwe is taught at the University, as well as several other state colleges and universities in the Minnesota system. Many tribal colleges throughout the Great Lakes, immersion schools and pre-school and elementary schools also offer the language. In addition to being a resource for educators and students, Child believes the dictionary will be of use to museum professionals and scholars.

"Our agenda is very ambitious," she explains. "We hope to support language education, help communities maintain their language and encourage new speakers among the present generation."

Helping to Build an Engaged University for the 21st Century

Through the Office for Public Engagement, the University promotes interdisciplinary collaborations like the Ojibwe People's Dictionary that advance robust community engagement partnerships. Rooted in a comprehensive ten-point plan for public engagement, the University supports the deepening of community engagement strategies through the development of community-partnered research that addresses critical societal issues while optimizing educational experiences for students participating in community-focused learning. Learn more about the University's public engagement agenda.