Larry Stillday, seated at right, is interviewed for the film First Speakers at his Healing Lodge in Ponemah, Minnesota. Stillday holds a Teaching Lodge, where he teaches culture and language, twice a year in Ponemah, all are invited to participate.

Native American Language Documentary Wins Upper Midwest Emmy

Michael Meuers

Twin Cities Public Television (tpt) recently announced that on September 25, the station was awarded an Upper Midwest Emmy for First Speakers: Restoring the Ojibwe Language, a documentary funded through Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment.

First Speakers follows a new generation of Ojibwe scholars and educators racing against time to save one of Minnesota’s native languages. The organization received 26 nominations in 20 categories for the Upper Midwest Emmy Awards.

About the Documentary

A language is lost every 14 days. One of those endangered tongues is Minnesota’s Ojibwe language. Now, this new generation of educators are working with the remaining fluent-speaking Ojibwe elders, hoping to pass the language on to the next generation. But can this language be saved?

Told by Ojibwe elders, scholars, writers, historians and teachers, this tpt original production is filled with hope for the future.?As recent as World War II, the Ojibwe language (referred to as Ojibwemowin in Ojibwe) was the language of everyday life for the Anishinaabe and historically the language of the Great Lakes fur trade. Now, this indigenous language from where place names like Bemidji, Biwabik, Sheboygan, Nebish, and Mahnomen received their names is endangered.

Ojibwe Native American Language Anton Treuer

The loss of land and political autonomy, combined with the damaging effects of U.S. government policies aimed at assimilating Native Americans through government run boarding schools, have led to the steep decline in the use of the language.

Anton Treuer, historian, author and professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University and featured in First Speakers, estimates there are fewer than 1,000 fluent Ojibwe speakers left in the United States, mostly older and concentrated in small pockets in northern Minnesota with fewer than 100 speakers in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Dakota combined.

Treuer is a part of a new generation of Ojibwe scholars and educators who are racing against time to save the language and the well-being of their communities. Narrated by acclaimed Ojibwe writer, Louise Erdrich, First Speakers tells their contemporary and inspirational story. Working with the remaining fluent Ojibwe speaking elders, the hope is to pass the language on to the next generation. As told through Ojibwe elders, scholars, writers, historians and teachers, this documentary reveals some of the current strategies and challenges that are involved in trying to carry forward the language.

Ojibwe Native American Language Eugene Stillday

First Speakers takes viewers inside two Ojibwe immersion schools: Niigaane Ojibwemowin Immersion School on the Leech Lake Reservation near Bena, Minnesota and the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion Charter School on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation near Hayward, Wisconsin. In both programs, students are taught their academic content from music to math entirely in the Ojibwe language and within the values and traditional practices of the Ojibwe culture. Unique to the schools is the collaboration between fluent speaking elders and the teachers who have learned Ojibwe as their second language.

First Speakers provides a window into their innovative and intergenerational learning experience and the language they are determined to save.? Red Lake’s fluent speakers Eugene Stillday, Anna Gibbs, Rose Tainter, Susan Johnson, and Larry Stillday are featured prominently in the production. Much of the documentary was filmed on the Red Lake Indian Reservation at Ponemah.

DVD’s are expected to be available soon, but until then, watch the documentary in its entirety online at

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Nona's picture
Submitted by Nona on
Nixyaawii Community School also hosts a language bowl and initves teams from surrounding reservations. They get excited and are really competitive! This year's bowl is scheduled for April 27th :)