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Native Language In Public School

Left: George Trudeau with a student. Right: Isadore Toulouse at the board.


By Linda Stephan

Learning a second language is not always about learning foreign language. It can also be about preserving what's been right here for generations, language at risk of being lost.

In addition to offerings, such as French or Spanish, more northern Michigan public schools and colleges are offering students the chance to learn Anishinaabemowin, or Ojibwe.

Suttons Bay Public Schools is a regional leader in offering native languages for second-language credit. The program is now three years old. In tough budget times, Suttons Bay had held tight to its native language offerings.

Keeping What's here
French and Spanish are more popular. But middle-and-high School Principal Raph Rittenhouse says teaching native language and culture is, perhaps, more important.

"I think other folks, outsiders, have a sense that something very unique to the area exists here," he says. Suttons Bay lies just south of reservation land of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. "I think it is important for us to recognize those elements and to make sure they're really firmly implanted in our local culture. We can't forget what gave rise to this area."

Many of the tribe's children attend school in Suttons Bay, and a few are sitting a part of this first-year language class.

The students didn't grow up with this language. Few people alive today speak Anishinaabemowin as a mother-tongue, but Instructor George Trudeau does.

"My dad didn't know how to speak English," he says. "He never spoke English, even until the day he passed on. And he passed on not even a year yet."

What could be lost
Trudeau grew up on Manitoulin Island, a large island that separates Lake Huron and the Canadian North Channel. He says, even as a 10 year old, he was proud of his language.

"I used to hear the people visiting at my parents' home always laughing, always laughing, and they're using their language," he says.

He didn't see the same with visitors who spoke English. Jokes were lost in translation.

"Not too much laughter, so-and-so, but not as much as in the language and I said, 'Hey, there's something there.'"

The use of native languages was sharply curtailed when American Indian and Aboriginal school children were forced into English-only boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries. Now Trudeau is passing on his language and culture to students in Suttons Bay, together with Teacher Isadore Toulouse.

Toulouse says these programs are long overdue in the public school system and he's hopeful languages of the Great Lakes can be rescued from extinction.

"I think Ojibwa, Odawa and Potawatomie are one of the three-or-four main languages that'll survive because of our strong ability to teach what we're doing today, because of our belief it what we have, what was left for us," he says. "To be able to share what we know in this setting with students."

Changing Course
It's an opportunity that's not always been around. Principal Raph Rittenhouse says, for too long, the schools have largely ignored native culture.

"As we've been paying attention to it, I just think we've been turning the nose of the ship back in the right direction," he says.

Decades ago there were violent clashes between whites and American Indians over hunting and fishing rights in the Great Lakes. Even today in Suttons Bay, the two groups rarely seem to mix. But Grand Traverse Band Chairman Derek Bailey says that's changing, and the schools' efforts help. His own children attend Suttons Bay.

"I think a good cornerstone has been developed," he says. "If you look in our region, 30-or-40 years ago, it was a different climate. And we've progressed through some challenging times. Hopefully we've learned.

"And we look in our area, our children are playing with one another, our children are growing up together. They're our future leaders. So what are we doing now to instill that appreciation and respect?"

Back in the classroom, so far the language students tend to be native. But Isadore Toulouse hopes that as the program grows, it, too will get more diverse: that more students will take an interest.

"Our way of life - our spirituality, our culture, who we are - is embedded into our language. So I think that's what the kids need to understand," he says.

In a few years, high school graduates in Michigan will be required to know a second language. Finding the time and money to teach world languages well is a challenge for schools. In Traverse City it might mean less music and art, and that has some arts supporters upset, even before any decisions have been made. Find that story here.