University of Minnesota Sustains Endangered Indigenous Languages Through Immersion Housing
April 24, 2023

​When deciding where to live, University of Minnesota Twin Cities (UMN) students can opt for housing where they will speak primarily in a Native American language. Last fall, the university launched a Dakota-language living learning community, joining the Ojibwe immersion house that debuted two years earlier.

In recent years UMN, an ACE member, has expanded its efforts to preserve Minnesota’s indigenous languages. The university introduced a major in Ojibwe in 2016 and Dakota in 2022. The immersion houses, the first of their kind at a non-tribal college, complement these degrees, enabling students to express themselves through the languages to an extent that classroom instruction alone would not achieve.

“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,” Zoe Brown, an Ojibwe language teaching specialist, told Inside Higher Ed. “What the students are able to do is really live together and take the language home.”

Students must take a year of Ojibwe courses before they can live in the Ojibwe immersion house, or the Ojibwewigamig, and they cannot speak English while they are there. Because the Dakota major is so new, students who have just started learning the language can live in the Dakota language house, and they can use English if they get stuck.

UMN’s Department of American Indian Studies estimates that fewer than 700 first-language Ojibwe speakers and just eight first-language Dakota speakers remain in Minnesota, most of whom are elders. These figures reflect national trends. Without significant intervention, nearly all Native American languages will be extinct by 2050, according to The Language Conservancy, an organization that studies and prevents language loss.

“We dont want [Dakota] to become something that remains in books and recordings only. We’re all racing against time,” Šišóka Dúta, a Dakota language teaching specialist, told the Star Tribune. Dúta himself learned to speak Dakota as a student at the university.

The dire state of Dakota, Ojibwe, and other Native American languages is largely a result of over a century of forcible assimilation enacted by the U.S. government. Between 1819 and 1969, the federal government compelled Native American children to attend boarding schools that forbade speaking non-English languages and violently punished students who disobeyed. Fear and trauma led countless parents not to teach their children the languages their communities had spoken for hundreds of years.

College is thus many Native Americans’ first chance to learn their indigenous languages. However, only 17 percent of college-age Native Americans are enrolled in college nationally, lagging behind all other ethnic and racial groups.

UMN is aiming to remove barriers preventing Native students from reconnecting with their heritage. The university offers tuition assistance to members of Minnesota’s indigenous tribes, and obtained a grant that covers 90 percent of tuition and fees for students studying Ojibwe and Dakota. These efforts are paying off: over the past decade, Native American enrollment both at the university and in its indigenous language courses has climbed significantly.

“Theres such a huge base of second-language learners and support for people like me who want to work on this kind of stuff. Back home on the reservation, you would expect that, and there is support for it, but I feel like, leaps and bounds, this is ahead of that,” Dustin Morrow, a linguistics master’s student who lives in the Ojibwewigamig, told APM Reports.

The university hopes that students who live in the immersion houses will emerge feeling responsible for their languages’ survival and capable of passing their languages on.

“That’s the end goal here,” Brendan Kishketon, an Ojibwe language professor, told The Minnesota Daily. “That they become so highly proficient that when they graduate and start having a family…that they can speak to their own kids in the language, thereby perpetuating the language, saving the language.”

Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota