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More than just words: Red Lake wants to integrate Ojibwe language, culture into everyday curriculum

Giniwgiizhig, a principal at the school district and an enrolled member of White Earth Nation. Submitted photo.

RED LAKE—When is it time to harvest maple syrup?

At Red Lake School District, leaders want the answer to come from a combination of traditions. The harvesting window is a few months in the late winter and early spring, when below-freezing nights and above-freezing days cause sap to run. And a longstanding American Indian method to recognize its beginning and end relies on seasonal temperature cues.

"When the crows come back, it's getting ready to start running," said Giniwgiizhig, a principal at the school district and an enrolled member of White Earth Nation. "And when the frogs start singing, it's done."

District leaders are working on a five-year plan to integrate Ojibwe language and culture into the district's K-12 curriculum, a move that would coincide with a similar plan to build a K-12 language immersion track for students. The curriculum integration plan could mean teaching Minnesota history alongside the history of Red Lake and its traditional forms of government in a social studies class—or overlaying traditional teachings about harvest times onto a science lesson.

"It's deeper than just a word here or there, which is what we've done forever in education," Superintendent Melinda Crowley said.

Red Lake students could, perhaps, build a longhouse near the school district's offices or work with elders to plant and harvest traditional medicines.

"It's always been language and culture's down at the end of the hall in the one room with the one teacher, which you get 20 minutes a couple times a week if you're lucky," Giniwgiizhig said. "So we said why don't we just make our core curriculum be culturally sensitive?"

District leaders are set to produce a cost estimate for the project next month.

"There are significant capital investments that go with this," Crowley said. "But it's important because...kids today don't necessarily learn the way kids 20 years ago did. And so we need to engage them, and we need to bring them into real experiences, and that's really what we're trying to do here."

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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