Conversations with Tim: Preserving indigenous languages and cultures

Anton Treuer
Anton Treuer
November 19, 2021

This month, Conversations with Tim features a discussion between Tim Boals, WIDA founder and director, and Anton Treuer, an author and professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University.

Tim and Anton joined Merideth Trahan, WIDA chief of staff, to talk about the importance of preserving indigenous languages and cultures.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Tim: Anton, tell us about who you are, where you are, what you teach and what you do when you're not teaching.

Anton: I get to wear many hats. I’m a professor: I teach the Ojibwe language, history and culture. I have 20 books out. A few of them are works of history and some are about linguistics or Ojibwe language. One of my hats is that of an academic who works in indigenous language revitalization. I also do a lot of work around racial equity and cultural competency. I give a lot of trainings about race in education – a lot of those trainings are with K-12 educators, although sometimes I work with law enforcement, social services and judicial centers. When I'm not wearing those hats, I'm a father of nine children. I'm also at the service of our native community. I officiate at native ceremonies, from life ceremonies to funerals.

Tim: Hats off to you for raising nine children. How fulfilling! Tell me, why is it crucial to preserve indigenous languages?

Anton: Indigenous languages are truly important for many reasons. I think all of us as human beings have been deeply touched and scarred by the colonial experience, which has been about taking one language, culture, religion, and using it to supplant all others. It’s been about erasure, and it’s employed the tools of violence to see that effected. But violence dehumanizes all of us. We should be pollinating the garden that everyone's trying to harvest from. Most K-12 students in America are students of color and about 60% finish high school. About 50% of Indigenous learners finish high school. It’s not a recipe for healthy country to take the largest demographic group of students in the country and get 60% of them to the finish line. We should want everybody to finish, to go to college, to succeed and to have equitable access to opportunity.

We must do something different. America has the blessing and the curse of a lot of local control in education. One of the blessings is there is room for innovation and experimentation. When I’ve looked at indigenous language-focused educational efforts, they are having more success with Indigenous learners in terms of mitigating truancy and getting people to the finish line with high school because kids are staying engaged in their educational process longer and more deeply. That's one of thousands of reasons why languages matter. It is not just about another pretty bird singing in the forest. These are defining features of who we are. This is about our sovereignty, our identity, our culture. They are some of the most powerful tools we have to make the world a better place, and to provide equitable access to opportunity.

Tim: You said so many important things. I love your metaphor about getting more kids to the finish line. That's what we need to think about, and how we do it effectively. How are your efforts going to preserve the Ojibwe language?

Anton: Five years ago, when I was speaking at a WIDA event, I was saying that the future of the Ojibwe language is not certain, but it's certainly possible. I still feel that to be the case. We've had some wonderful success in some areas – especially the development of resources and tools. We’re launching Rosetta Stone this year! Even for the schools and programs that cannot offer immersion teaching there are more powerful tools in the toolbox today. Lots and lots of books! It’s been 30 years since I started this work and back then you could count the number of Ojibwe books on two hands. Now, there are hundreds of them! But that's hundreds, whereas an accelerated reader program for English has 5,000 books loaded into the system, tagged by grade level. We've got a lot of work to do to be able to do the same thing in Ojibwe. Our efforts still need to be classified as emerging, but I am seeing a lot of broad engagement from individuals, tribes and different schools and programs. It is accelerating but it's accelerating at a time when most of our first speakers of the language are elders. I think we lost 20% of the fluent Ojibwe speakers just during the pandemic.

Merideth: I’m so sorry, Anton. Knowing that most of your first speakers are elders, I’m curious about the younger generations' interest and willingness to engage in learning language.

Anton: There’s a lot of passion among younger people. That's what you need for a language to live. It doesn't just live in a book. It doesn't just live in a handful of elder speakers, or just as a ceremonial language, it has to live in the hearts and minds of young people who are using it for everything in life.

Tim: You're doing so much and it's encouraging to hear about your successes, but I’m sorry to hear about the passing of so many of your elders during the pandemic. In the past, you’ve said, “Language can disrupt the glue for colonial thinking which has been fundamentally dehumanizing to Indigenous people.” Can you help us unpack that statement?

Anton: I feel that colonization/erasure is dehumanizing. All kids coming through school systems in America, of all races, genders and backgrounds, should be empowered in the opportunity to learn about themselves, as well as to learn about the rest of the world. We have not done a great job of that in education. We've doubled down on a very narrow range of topics.

We inherited our system from the British and we still teach more about animals in the broad British empire than animals here in North America. To the point where people are driving down the road and see some animal that’s been run over and don't even know what it is but have intimate knowledge of what a duck-billed platypus looks like. It’s comical except that when you don’t know about something or someone, it’s so much easier to be ambivalent about its destruction.

Because colonization has been about erasure, one of the greatest fears for those who are steeped in the culture of colonization is fear of their own erasure. So, I see, in a racially divisive and politically divisive climate, a lot of white people afraid of their own erasure. Fear is deepening the divide between all of us and inhibiting our ability to work collectively and collaboratively for solutions that will be of greatest benefit to all of us.

Tim: I think this ties in well with my next question, which is what do you want teachers to know today when they are educating Indigenous students?

Anton: There’s a basket of things. First, it is important to be open. We must have an adaptive leadership approach. That means we have to lead in our classroom space as educators, in our administrative space as administrators, and at the same time we’re leading we have to listen.

We have to be open and adaptive to an ever-changing environment and demography. We have to pay attention to the things that are working. I was stunned, when I was doing work with Portland Public Schools, to see that one of the largest school districts in America, with 58 different languages spoken, almost eliminated racially predictable disparities and test scores, truancy rates, graduation rates and college matriculation rates. Under the leadership of Lolenzo Poe, they used an anti-racist frame, which prompted them to ask, even when they were painting the parking lot, is there a racial impact to this? It seemed to produce remarkable results. Then he retired and they thought the problem was solved, so the data started to slide back. He had been there for 30 years and maintained a report card like that for his last 20 years. It is both an impressive tale about what can happen and a cautionary one about what happens when you take your foot off the gas.

Some of the data we're seeing from indigenous language revitalization efforts is that there are ideas that are showing success. One idea is that the teacher doesn't have to be the content expert but must ask good guiding questions and coach the learning effort. For example, I had a fifth grader who was in an expeditionary charter school who had a Columbus unit come up, and the teacher didn't have to think, “If I say this, the natives will get mad and if I say that the Italians will get mad, so I am going to do as little as possible.” Instead, they asked, “why did this happen?” And the kids ended up holding court and taking evidence and each kid wrote their own opinion. They could all be different opinions, but through the process they learned their geography and their history and developed critical thinking skills. It seemed to really work.

The KIPP program, a network of 270 public charter schools, offers both sobering but empowering evidence in some of their big longitudinal studies, where they take data, like test scores, and code teachers in an apples-to-apples environment. A teacher that had three years in a row of underperforming students in test scores gets labeled as an underperforming teacher and vice versa for high performing teachers. Afterwards, they coded the kids the same way. Then, they took the highest performing teachers and placed them with the lowest performing kids and those kids accelerated dramatically in their reading abilities. They also took the lowest performing teachers and placed them with the highest performing kids and those kids went down, which says that it's not all about poverty. It's not all about what's happening outside of school, but in our schools.

The explosion through literacy is stunning. If you get a kid to be a reader, you're never putting a genie back in the bottle, they’re a reader for life. But if you get a kid up through seventh grade and they've never got it, they probably never will. We have the power to impact kids.

Tim: Quality teaching matters.

Anton: It does! Which means that we need to lean into the work. We have to love everybody who comes through the door and do our best with everybody. We have to be attentive to different learning styles. We have to find ways to empower all our students to learn who they are. Aside from the hand that rocks the cradle, we have the biggest influence on our young people. They should feel empowered, treasured, respected and supported. We need to listen while leading and look for the answers that are going to deliver results. Even if we find something that's been working for 10 years, the demography and the tools may be different 10 years later, so we must constantly be evolving and paying attention.

Tim: It’s so important to evaluate your practice and look at how your kids respond. What are some indigenous language resources, tools and instructional strategies that you would recommend educators use in their classroom and beyond?

Anton: The Hawaiian experiment has been interesting to watch. They declared the whole state one school district, so unlike a big city, you didn't have some schools at $4,000 per pupil and some at $40,000 per pupil and some teachers starting at $27,000 and some starting at $67,000 expecting the same results. I think that the relationship building between K-12, higher ed and teacher training was helpful there too, especially with the language revitalization effort. They've published a lot of books and resources that have been guideposts for us. They went from 1,000 speakers left on the planet to 24,000 and it continues to accelerate every year.

Merideth: Tim, can you share a little bit about what WIDA is doing to support Indigenous language acquisition and how it impacts our work?

Tim: I’d love to mention one project that we're very excited about. It’s the Yugtun Proficiency Test (YPT) project, which is a grant-funded project with the Lower Kuskokwim School District in southwestern Alaska that we were invited to support more than five years ago. The Yugtun language is spoken by Yu’pik people and the YPT project is led by our partners in Alaska. WIDA, through the work of researcher Rosalie Grant, provides test development support to the project team.

The reason I'm so excited about this project is the same reason that Anton talks about the importance of language preservation. If we, as an organization, can be of service to tribes to develop tools to measure the growth of language, we can support them to see the progress that their language programs are making on their students. What we're hoping is that there will be blueprints and lessons that we learn from the experience of working with the Lower Kuskokwim School District that can be shared with other tribes throughout the country, and wherever tribal governments are struggling with this issue of preserving the language. Now is the time to get these programs going. Otherwise, we risk losing this vital link to native culture.

About Conversations with Tim 

Conversations with Tim, WIDA Founder and Director is a WIDA news article series that features a conversation between WIDA Founder and Director Tim Boals and a colleague or two in the field of multilingual learner education. Together, they discuss the important innovation, research and collaboration taking place today.

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