RED LAKE-At one point, college didn't have much to offer John Daniel.
Daniel, then 19, had just earned his GED, and he enrolled in Lake Superior College because he needed something to do, he said. But that changed when he started learning Ojibwemowin at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.
"At some point there at Fond du Lac I realized that's what I wanted to learn," Daniel said. "I didn't know-maybe I still don't know-what I want to do as a profession, my career, but all I know is I want to learn the language."
Daniel, now 25, is on the cusp of earning a bachelor's degree in Indigenous Studies and the Ojibwe language from Bemidji State University, plus a certificate of instruction in the language. He'll be one of 42 American Indian students to earn a diploma Friday afternoon at the school's 100th commencement ceremony.
From there, he wants to earn a master's degree and a teaching license, and snag a job at Duluth Public Schools' Misaabekong immersion program.
Daniel, a Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe enrollee, said he grew up speaking bits and pieces of Ojibwemowin. He said he can understand elders who speak the language among themselves-"they try to talk dirty all the time," he laughed-but Daniel was reluctant to say he's fluent.
"There's others I work with...they grew up speaking Ojibwe." he said. "That was their first language before they even knew English. So it's hard to compare myself to them."
Daniel is an Ojibwe literacy specialist for Red Lake Nation's Waasabiik Ojibwemotaadiwin, a language immersion program for 3- and 4-year-olds. Staff at Red Lake School District want the tribal program to be a funnel for their own language immersion track, but said finding staff who are fluent in the language and have a teachers license is difficult.
Daniel said "a huge chunk" of American Indian kids grow up not knowing who they are because it's been lost via oppression and trauma.
"So Indian kids try to pick up and be like other people, other races, like the black culture, Mexican culture, white culture. They try to be like that because they don't know how to be Indian...I went through the same thing and I didn't know a lot about my culture," he said. "The little bit that they did teach in public schools was negative.
"So I think it's really empowering to learn the language and learn my culture, and by doing that, it's just finding out who I am as an Indian person."