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Niigaane celebrates: Ojibwe immersion school finds permanency in new classroom space

Dennis Banks performs a magic trick for his granddaughter, Zinzii Banks, 12, pictured in red, and her classmates as students and staff at the Niigaane Ojibwe Immersion School, operated through the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School, celebrate their new classrooms. Bethany Wesley | Bemidji Pioneer

BENA — As one of only two such schools in the nation, the Niigaane school is drawing attention for the right reasons.

The Niigaane Ojibwe Immersion School, its own school within Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school, opened in 2004 to revitalize the Ojibwe language.

"This is us 10 years later," said Leslie Harper, director of the school, as she spoke last week before a room full of visitors, staff and students.

Harper was among a group of devoted volunteers who donated their time a decade ago to found Niigaane.

"We started out with one little class of kids here at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School … and we said, ‘Well now what?’ after one year (as even more families expressed enrollment interest), and the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School said, ‘Well, we’ve got another room here somewhere,’" Harper said.

Niigaane, in the early years, basically added a grade each year, asking its students to commit to the Niigaane program from kindergarten through sixth grade.

As classes were added, though, space got tighter, and Niigaane students eventually were relocated to a former bus garage.

"It was cold. We often sent home notes, ‘Please dress your children in layers,’" Harper said. "Niigaane parents, you know, it’s no joke. That’s kind of why our Niigaane jackets are so important to us."

Additionally, the bus garage had water problems, so Niigaane supporters, parents and staff began lobbying for funds.

"A lot of our community came together and really worked hard to get the BIA’s attention, to say we really deserve better," Harper said.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs listened and then located money to fund the construction of modular classrooms. Those new spaces were dedicated Wednesday as supporters celebrated.

"Hearing the timeline, where it started as such a small classroom leading to where we’re at today, it took a lot of effort, a lot of commitment from everybody, but we have seen the results from it, through the success of our children" said Carri Jones, chairwoman of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

Jones went to Washington, D.C., with students who testified on behalf of the tribe.

"When we were out there, the Niigaane program was something that was always emphasized," she said.

The tribe often is praised for the Niigaane program and also questioned about how it was able to cultivate its growth, Jones said.

Indeed, Harper said Niigaane is one of only two Ojibwe immersion schools operating in the United States, the other being in Hayward, Wis., the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School on the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation.

"I know other tribes are looking at us," Jones said. "Our language and culture is something we should preserve and really focus on and that is something we’ve done at our school here today."

Ten-year-old Bejiishkii Roybal, a fifth-grader, attends Niigaane during the day and then goes home, where she teaches Ojibwe to some of her relatives.

She, like her classmates, started at Niigaane as a kindergartener. She said she’d heard the language at different events as a younger child, but did not know herself how to speak it.

Niigaane, a true immersion school, does not teach Ojibwe; students learn the language as all the subjects and instruction, is delivered in Ojibwe.

"It was hard at first when you didn’t know what they were saying, but I had some helpful friends," Bejiishkii said.

Now fluent, Bejiishkii said she never wants to leave Niigaane.

"I’m going to ask (my mom) if I can just stay back for another year so I can stay here," she said.

Bejiishkii agreed it would be ideal if Niigaane hosted grades 7-12 as well, but that would be difficult as teachers would have to be fluent in Ojibwe and also certified to teach high-school curriculum.

"It would be so fun," she said. "But it’s kind of hard to find the teachers."