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Indian leaders, legislators make effort to preserve languages

ST. PAUL -- American Indian leaders fear their native languages are being lost, calling the situation a crisis.

"When a person passes away, it is like a whole dictionary that is gone," Lillian Rice told a Minnesota House committee.

A Native American's language, she added, "is the very sense of who we are. ... Without that, we are lost."

Indian leaders are working to save languages, and now the Minnesota Legislature is considering helping the cause. Bills to establish a state-tribal organization to look into the issue are being considered, along with providing $150,000 to help the cause.

The group would work with the state's 11 tribes to help preserve the Ojibwe (Chippewa) and Dakota (Sioux) languages.

"These languages are very much in danger of being lost," Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, warned.

Rice, who works with a Minneapolis-based Indian language program, speaks Pottawattamie, Ojibwe and English. But many Indians, especially youth, do not speak their native tongues.

Lillian Stand, like Rice a Wicoie Nandagikendan language program worker, said that her parents were punished for speaking Ojibwe, so she did not teach it to her children.

"I regret that very much," she said.

Now, she added, her grandchildren are learning Ojibwe.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.