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From left, Bemidji High School student Brett Theisen holds a sign that means math in Ojibwe. Theisen, along with students Zach Sauer, Chris Gilbertson, Tyler Bannor and Landon Yerbich, are making numerous signs in the Ojibwe language that will be put up at every school in the Bemidji School District. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Students help language project in Bemidji schools

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Students help language project in Bemidji schools
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Students in the Bemidji School District may soon notice a change to their classroom names.

A sign for the health office will have "Aakoziiwigamigoons" next to it, the cafeteria will have "Wisiniiwigamig" and art room will include "Mazinibii'igewigamig."


Dozens of signs featuring words in Ojibwe are being made by five students at Bemidji High School and will placed throughout the school district. The project is being funded by Bemidji's Ojibwe Language Project, a subcommittee of Shared Vision, a Bemidji group working to make relations between American Indians and members of the majority culture friendlier.

BHS Principal Brian Stefanich said several months ago he was asked by subcommittee members Michael Meuers and Rachelle Houle if he would be interested putting up signs in Ojibwe.

"I said, 'I think that's a great idea,'" Stefanich said. "I think it will benefit all of our students. We want to recognize all cultures and our Native American students are a big part of our high school."

But while Stefanich and other school principals thought the initiative was a good idea, making and distributing the proposed signs was expected to cost thousands of dollars, something Stefanich said the school district could not afford.

Meuers and Houle pledged to raise the money. They knocked on the doors of local businesses, asking for donations. They also received a grant from Ojibwe scholar and BSU professor Anton Treuer, who has been helping Meuers and Houle with finding the correct Ojibwe words for the school signs.

Stefanich offered to have high school students make the signs with school equipment and order sign materials in bulk as a way to save costs.

Meuers and Houle still need about $250 to pay for the $2,000 project, but Meuers feels confident they will find the donations before the students are done making the signs.

The high school offers Ojibwe language classes, Stefanich said, but not all students and staff know or understand the language.

"I want all our students to feel welcome and feel comfortable at the high school," he said.

Throughout the past year and a half, Meuers and Houle have been encouraging local businesses and organizations to install bilingual signage in their buildings to increase awareness of the Ojibwe language in the community.

Their original goal was to have 20 businesses participate. Today, nearly 150 sites in the Bemidji area have gone bilingual.

Noemi Aylesworth, owner of the Cabin Coffee House, was one of the first business owners who agreed to collaborate with Shared Vision on the bilingual project. The business featured table tents with numbers, animals and the major Red Lake clans in both English and Ojibwe.

Last year, Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College added bilingual signs across both campuses, including multimedia materials on Ojibwe translations for nearly 100 English phrases common to northern Minnesota.

Treuer also created audio clips that correctly pronounce words and phrases, first in Ojibwe and then in English.

To see and hear the Ojibwe language materials, visit

"The symbol of (the bilingual signs) has created a buzz," Meuers said. "This gets people's attention, doesn't cost anything and it works. We've gotten nothing but positive comments about this."

Meuers said often people are not aware that Ojibwe is the indigenous language of Minnesota. He said he is often asked why more emphasis is not placed on keeping the Norwegian heritage alive northern Minnesota.

"Ojibwe is the indigenous language of northern Minnesota," he said. "Norwegian and German are imported languages. I want to help preserve the native language. When you lose a language, you lose culture. When you lose culture, who knows what you lose."

The signs are made of a two-layered plastic material and lettering is engraved through the use of an engraving machine. When the top layer is engraved, it exposes the bottom layer's color.

BHS Teacher Bryan Hammit said the high school students who are working on the signs not only supervise the engraving machine, but also chose the fonts, colors and sizes of the signs.

"Michael came to us with a problem," Hammit said. "The students did the research and designed the signs. They really owned this project."

Meuers said he hopes to expand the bilingual initiative in the future, possibly to places throughout the county. He hopes Bemidji will become more like the state of Hawaii, where he said the language is much more a part of the culture.

"This is going to show Indian people 'you are welcome and respected in our community,'" Meuers said. "It's going to teach non-Indian people about the culture that was here before 1895. And, also, tourists eat it up, so there's also an economic benefit as well."