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WUWM's Teran Powell races on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

Ojibwe Language Classes Hope To Help Revitalize Native Languages In Wisconsin

Teran Powell
Language instructor Michael Zimmerman leads an Ojibwe language class at Indian Community School in Franklin, Wis.

The presence of Native American people in Wisconsin dates back thousands of years — before any of us knew America's Dairyland to be what it is today. But as the population decreased, so did the prevalence of its languages.

However, places like the Indian Community School (ICS) in Franklin, Wis., are continuing to move the culture forward and keep the languages current with biweekly language courses.

On a recent Tuesday night, several students gathered in a small classroom at the Indian Community School for their biweekly Ojibwe language class. The instructor, Michael Zimmerman, printed off worksheets for the class with words and phrases that picked up where their last session left off.

It was a class of adults and was very informal — students had the chance to ask questions about what they wanted to know. That's something Zimmerman says helps the flow of the class.

"I try to make it as open ended as possible because I'd rather folks, instead of saying, 'Well, I'm here. Teach me,' I want them to take something from it that they themselves are looking to get," he says.

READ: Coloring Books Teach Native American Youth About Their Culture

Zimmerman has been teaching at ICS for 4 years. In addition to Ojibwe, he also teaches Odawa and Potawatomi dialects, which can overlap one another.

That's something one of the students, Rachel Jeski, says she enjoys. Jeski is Potawatomi and has been coming to language classes at ICS for about two years.

As she gets older, Jeski says she's more inspired by the language, she's learning history she never knew, and it's a way for her to help move the language forward.

"Being more in touch with my native culture, that part of me, and knowledgeable and to keep it alive. I really like that part of it," she says.

Another student, Diane Amour, feels the same way. 

"I'm happy that we have the language classes because as a people our language was given to us by the creator. We need to learn that or keep as much as we can," she says.

Amour is Potawatomi and Ojibwe. She's been going to different language classes for about 20 years and has often crossed paths with other speakers to compare commonalities and differences in their languages.

"Language holds our culture, and if you know the meaning then you know that world view. And each little morsel gives you a better understanding," Amour explains.

"Language holds our culture, and if you know the meaning then you know that world view. And each little morsel gives you a better understanding," says Diane Amour.

But there are some challenges to keeping native languages flourishing.

For example, Zimmerman says, one of the reasons the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi languages aren't as prominent as they once were, is because most of the people who speak them are elders.

Another challenge, he says, is presenting it in a way that everyone can take something from it whether you're native or not.

"There's a lot of mentality that, well, non-natives shouldn't learn the language. But we're at a point now where it's like, we need people. It doesn't matter who," he says.

And Zimmerman says it's also challenging when the word "dying" is associated with native languages: because of the connotations that come with it, and also because, in a sense, it's just not accurate, he says.

"There are languages that exist that have gone dormant and are in the process of being reawakened and revitalized. In terms of the immediacy of yes, some of these languages are definitely falling out of use. That is a serious issue from a cultural perspective, from a spiritual perspective, for many reasons. From a sovereignty perspective even — when you look at what differentiates us between the general populace it's our language first and foremost," he explains.

But Zimmerman also puts the responsibility on people in Milwaukee, and even statewide, to do a better job of recognizing native culture here.

Zimmerman says anyone living in a state that takes its name from a native word, has a social responsibility to understand the origins of that, and the origins of people that came before them.

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.


Do you have a question about race in Milwaukee that you'd like WUWM's Teran Powell to explore? Submit it below.


Teran Powell joined WUWM in the fall of 2017 as the station’s very first Eric Von Fellow.
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