Lac Vieux Desert Tribe works to incorporate indigenous teaching, language in schools

It’s an attempt at reversing damage done by the same system used for decades to “Americanize” Native children in boarding schools.
Published: Nov. 29, 2022 at 5:44 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 29, 2022 at 7:29 PM EST
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WATERSMEET, Mich. (WLUC) - The Ojibwe language and culture is dying with their elders, but the Lac Vieux Desert Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Watersmeet hopes introducing it to children at school can change that.

“We find other resources outside of the community to bring that language back to our community and preserve that as much as we can,” said Lac Vieux Desert Tribal Chairman James Williams, “and [we] try to find the same dialect that we use within our area here at Lac Vieux Desert is there so we’ve been reaching out to other tribal spiritual leaders that know the language to help us do that.”

Eighty percent of Watersmeet Schools’ students are native, and until this year, none had ever learned about their history, culture, or language in their public school.

Alina Shively is now the Lac Vieux Desert Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. An alumna of Watersmeet Township School District, she only dreamed of learning about her culture in school.

“When I went to Watersmeet – I’m an alumni of the class of 1998 and I attended K through 12 at Watersmeet – it was absolutely unheard of to hear boozhoo or miigwech or have our tribal membership acknowledged in any way in school,” Shively said.

Respect, love, courage, honesty, wisdom, humility, and truth: these are the 7 teachings of the Ojibwe. Native and non-native children are now learning these foundational lessons every day. The school is decorated with signs teaching different Ojibwe words like “boozhoo” (hello) and “biindigen” (welcome).

Shively and Williams say efforts to educate the community about indigenous culture have come a long way.

“The school is embracing – at least here and in the Watersmeet School District – embracing our culture and our traditions and respecting those, and so it’s good to see that,” said Williams. “We have a long ways to go yet within the surrounding community and you know, just the perception that people get from Native Americans, and you know, we’re just trying to live our culture and in our beliefs and get along with everybody.”

For Shively, these programs are personal. Three of her own children attend Watersmeet School District. So, she understands not only the importance of her kids learning at home but in school alongside their peers.

“Culture and language at a young age is super important in maintaining your way of life, being able to fluently speak your language,” Shively said, “and I’m just so thankful and happy that the school, the teaching staff and the administration is willing to help us help our kids regain all of this knowledge and then live it daily.”

Williams hopes employing the system — the same one which was used in erasing native culture— to instead teach and preserve it will further assist with healing.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of trauma that’s happened throughout our community with the boarding schools, you know foster cares, things like that,” said Williams. “Our kids need to know where their ancestors come (from), what they had to endure to get us where we’re at today. And so there’s still a lot of trauma out there from what’s happened to our native people, but we’re starting to open that up a little bit.”

The Lac Vieux Desert Tribe said they hope to continue expanding programs to teach both students and the greater Watersmeet community about the Ojibwe language, culture and history.

On your TV6 Early News at 6:00 p.m. ET Wednesday, Pavlina Osta will continue to explore the critical work Upper Michigan Tribes are doing in their areas by looking at how the Bay Mills Indian Community is reclaiming land while creating a sustainable food source.