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Ojibwe film wins Midwest Emmy

Eugene Stillday of Ponemah is involved in a variety of ways to revitalize the Ojibwe language. Submitted Photo

Twin Cities Public Television was awarded an Upper Midwest Emmy for "First Speakers: Restoring the Ojibwe Language," a documentary funded through Minnesota's Legacy Amendment, on Sept. 25.

"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 26 nominations in 20 different categories for the Upper Midwest Emmy Awards.

A language is lost every 14 days. One of those endangered tongues is Minnesota's own Ojibwe language. Now this new generation of educators is 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 shows hope for the future.

Anton Treuer, historian, author and professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University, is featured in the production. Treuer estimates there are fewer than 1,000 fluent Ojibwe speakers left in the United States, mostly older and concentrated in small pockets in northern Minnesota, with less than 100 speakers in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Dakota combined.

Treuer is a part of a new generation of Ojibwe scholars and educators who are working to save the language and the well-being of their communities. Working with the remaining fluent Ojibwe speaking elders, the hope is to pass the language on to the next generation.

"First Speakers" takes viewers inside two Ojibwe immersion schools: Niigaane Ojibwemowin Immersion School on the Leech Lake Reservation near Bena and the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion Charter School on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation near Hayward, Wis.

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.

As recently 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 effects of U.S. government policies aimed at assimilating Native Americans through government-run boarding schools, led to the steep decline in the use of the language.

Red Lake Reservation fluent speakers Eugene Stillday, Anna Gibbs, Rose Tainter, Susan Johnson, and Larry Stillday are featured prominently in the production, which is narrated by acclaimed Ojibwe writer Louise Erdrich.

Much of the documentary was filmed in Ponemah on the Red Lake Reservation. Michael Meuers, with Red Lake Public Relations and Bemidji's Ojibwe Language Project, and Shared Vision received recognition in the closing credits.

To view the production free, visit the TPT "First Speakers" website: DVDs are expected to be available soon.