Linguistic and Cultural Revitalization in Indian Country: Lessons for Philanthropy
This article is the fourth in a series that Nonprofit Quarterly, in partnership with the First Nations Development Institute, is publishing this fall. It features Native American nonprofit leaders who highlight the practices of community building in Indian Country and identify ways that philanthropy might more effectively support this work.
Language is the connection that binds all relationships and provides a central foundation for understanding. Many of the challenges that Native communities face are the result of trauma stemming from colonialism and the Indian boarding school, which sought to remove children from—in the words of one early-20th-century white assimilation advocate—“the influences of the wigwam, dance, and the migratory habits of their race.” Restoring indigenous languages is a central means to begin to reverse the impact of this historical trauma.
In 2018, First Nations Development Institute and Frontline Solutions released We Need to Change How We Think, a report that served as an introductory communication bridge between philanthropy and Native organizations. I want to further the conversation by including the perspective of a particularly well-developed Native organization, Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Institute (WOLI), both to make general observations and to highlight some that are specific to indigenous language and culture revitalization.
When I was born, before the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, it was illegal for American Indians to openly practice cultural traditions, such as the ceremony of giving a child an Ojibwe name. The ceremony, which in my community is conducted entirely in Ojibwe, was conducted despite the law. This is the direct result of my grandfather escaping from boarding school at the age of nine and traversing a 75-mile journey back to his parents, on foot, after being forcibly removed from his home. His family hid him in the woods when authorities came to take him back. They wanted him to learn and live the Ojibwe life and language.