‘Living in the Language’

The University of Minnesota is offering student housing for residents who want to immerse themselves in learning Ojibwe or Dakota, two Native languages at risk of extinction.

September 16, 2022
Students on campus at the University of Minnesota.
Students at the University of Minnesota can live in dorms dedicated to learning the Ojibwe and Dakota languages.
(University of Minnesota)

Dustin Morrow, a student earning his master’s degree in linguistics at the University of Minnesota, remembers the first time he heard someone casually speaking Ojibwe. He was 25 years old and attending an Ojibwe tribal ceremony in Bemidji, Minn.

“I must’ve looked just like a huge creep, because I just kept staring at this old lady, kind of awestruck,” he said.

He was eager to become as fluent as she was. Morrow’s grandmother, who passed away when he was 3 years old, was the last Ojibwe speaker in his family. More than 10 years later after that first encounter, he’s living at the Ojibwewigamig, student housing at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities where residents only converse in Ojibwe on the premises.

It’s one of two Native-language housing options offered to students in a local, university-owned apartment building. The Ojibwe immersion house, now home to eight students, was founded as a pilot program by faculty members in the Ojibwe language program in fall 2020. Faculty members in the Dakota language program launched a similar student housing initiative this fall. While the first two students at the Dakota language house aren’t required to speak Dakota yet, they’re encouraged to use the language in their day-to-day interactions.

The goal of the housing communities is to enhance the university’s educational offerings in the two languages and give students ample opportunity to use Ojibwe and Dakota in everyday situations. In doing so, the hope is to create fluent speakers and revitalize these languages, which are separate from one another and linked to different spiritual beliefs and cultural traditions but share long histories in Minnesota. Both languages have few remaining speakers.

Tribal colleges have long offered Indigenous language programs, but efforts to revitalize these languages have recently proliferated at nontribal colleges and universities across the country. These initiatives are one facet of a larger movement among scholars and administrators to right historic wrongs against Indigenous communities and foster a sense of belonging among their students, which research shows can improve their academic outcomes. Several institutions, including the University of Minnesota, offered tuition waivers to local Indigenous students this year, and land acknowledgments have become increasingly common on class syllabi and at campus events.

“I think this is part of more recent efforts at the universities to try to recognize local Indigenous communities, and language is one way they’ve tried to do that,” said Justin Spence, director of the Native American Language Center at the University of California, Davis.

He noted that there were once at least 250 Native American languages spoken in the United States and that an estimated 150 to 175 are still spoken today. He believes teaching these languages not only helps Indigenous students connect to their identities but can open up broader educational conversations on campuses about Indigenous histories and cultures and the “histories of the regions where universities are located.”

“Language becomes then an opening for a conversation about history and sometimes the disparities between what kinds of knowledge are valued by universities, at least historically, and other kinds of knowledge that are starting to be valued in different ways,” he added.

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Zoe Brown, a teaching specialist and co-coordinator of the Ojibwewigamig, said immersion housing allows students to learn languages in more depth than 50-minute class sessions.

“One of the things we know about language learning in general is that language in the home is a really important aspect in terms of really being able to speak and talk about every single aspect of life,” Brown said. “What the students are able to do is really live together and take the language home and … learn how to talk about all kinds of different things, like emotional things that come up, everyday kinds of things, cooking together, doing laundry—just living in the language, which is the real goal of all of our language instruction.”

The University of Minnesota enrolled 1,416 students who identified as American Indian in fall 2021, making up 2.1 percent of the student body, according to university data. Of those students, 729 were on the Twin Cities campus. The number of Native American students in this year’s incoming class has grown 25 percent compared to last year, an increase likely driven by the tuition waiver offered to local Indigenous students this fall. Minnesota is home to four Dakota reservations and seven Ojibwe reservations.

Recent American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau show there are more than 37,000 people on Ojibwe tribal lands in Minnesota, but there are fewer than 1,000 Ojibwe speakers in the country, according to research by University of Minnesota professors.

Šišóka Dúta, a language instructor in American Indian studies at the university, said as far as he knows, there’s only one fluent Dakota speaker left out of the couple thousand Dakota people he estimates are in Minnesota. He described the Dakota language house as part of a multipronged effort to revive the Dakota language. The new housing coincides with the launch of a new Dakota language major this semester. He hopes a master’s program will follow in the future.

He and his colleagues are also in the process of starting a Dakota-language daycare center on campus, called the Dakota Language Nest, that will teach children to speak Dakota. He noted that there’s a shortage of teachers who know the language, so he hopes some of the students studying Dakota learn teaching skills through volunteer opportunities at the daycare center and go on to become educators.

“We’ll have created this cycle where people start off in the daycare and go all the way through college learning our language, and they become teachers themselves and then they teach the next generation of teachers,” he said. “It’s kind of a long-term vision of how to create a sustainable language movement.”

Morrow moved into the Ojibwe immersion house in his senior year and just started his third year living there. He said it was initially hard for him and his housemates to communicate in a language they were still learning.

“There were so many times where we would start speaking, and we would completely blank on how to say what we wanted to talk about,” he said.

But speaking Ojibwe with others has gotten easier with time, and he’s seen a noticeable improvement in his housemates’ language skills. He’s also become a go-to source among friends and family for questions about the language.

“My biggest takeaway from this is identifying weak spots in my language, like, things you wouldn’t normally think of when you’re in the classroom studying,” he said. “Like, how do you say, ‘sweep it into the dustpan’ … or how to talk about what the washing machine is doing or something like that.”

Those might seem like small victories, but it’s those mundane interactions that bring the language to life for Morrow and his housemates and make them feel more deeply connected to their communities.

Deacon DeBoer, who’s earning a master’s degree in heritage studies and public history, moved into the Dakota language house last month. He started studying Dakota as an undergraduate, first at Minnesota State University and then at the University of Minnesota, and found it gave him a better sense of self and a deeper understanding of his history and his people, which led him to his current educational and career path. He wants a job focused on historical preservation work in tribal communities after he graduates.

He can now pray in the language his ancestors used and talk with tribal elders about traditions and recipes. He’s eager to get a better grasp on the language, as are his sister, his mother and his 6-year-old nephew, all of whom are learning to speak Dakota.

“This seemed like an opportunity for me to dive into … Dakota ways of life and my own identity as a Dakota person.”

Potential for Growth

Spence said while tribal colleges may have similar immersion opportunities, he’s never heard of Native language housing at other types of colleges and universities.

“I think one of the issues that sometimes comes up for tribal members who come to a university campus that may be far away from where the language is still commonly spoken is that takes away opportunities for them to interact with elders, maybe members of their family who are considered fluent speakers who they’d be able to learn from,” he said.

Jurgita Antoine, Native language research director at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, said in an email that tribal colleges and universities currently teach 29 different American Indian and Alaska Native languages. The consortium held its first Tribal College and University Native Languages Summit this spring to bring educators together to learn best practices.

While most of these institutions lack student housing, it’s not uncommon for them to offer immersion programs for students and community members or K-12 immersion schools on their premises, she added.

For example, Diné College in Arizona holds three-week Navajo language immersion camp programs for students and community members every summer.

Charles M. Roessel, president of Diné College, said campus leaders are considering creating a Navajo-immersion dormitory. But for now, they’re constructing an immersion language campus on a nearby mesa where the camps, seminars for Navajo language teachers and other immersion programming can take place throughout the year, starting next summer. The programs will take place in hogans, traditional Navajo dwellings made of logs.

“Rather than be in a classroom with four walls … sometimes it’s better to be in that environment that can better reflect and reinforce the teaching that’s happening,” he said.

Spence believes the University of Minnesota’s Ojibwe and Dakota housing could serve as an example for colleges that lack these kinds of immersion opportunities.

“I really do think they might be developing something that could be a model to be replicated in other places,” he said.

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