This Six-Year-Old Could Be Part Of A Revival Of The Ojibwe Language

May 22, 2020

Wren Gotts, 6, takes an online Ojibwe language class on her computer.
Credit Rebecca Gotts

At first glance, the YouTube video simply shows a young girl playing with Legos at her home.

But if you listen closely, it’s something more.

Six-year-old Wren Gotts is describing her Lego creations, by color, in Anishinaabemowin, the traditional Ojibwe language.

Wren patiently holds up each piece, explaining it in the language.

Actually, “Wren” is just one of her names, she said.

“Well, there’s two sorts [of names],” she said. “White Crane Girl is my [native] name.”

Although she lives in Michigan, Wren is an enrolled member of the Sokaogon Chippewa Community of Mole Lake in Forest County.

The world can see her videos, in part, thanks to her mom, Rebecca.

“I told all of our kids, during this COVID thing, what do you have that you can share to make people cheer up or to do something good for the world?” said Rebecca Gotts.

Wren can offer her language. For example, in a different video, she teaches viewers to make a traditional drum.

In more than 160 sovereign tribal nations in the Great Lakes region, Anishinaabemowin was once the language primarily spoken and heard.

Now, almost no children are speaking and hearing it as their first language at home, scholars say.

Some might say that’s the sign of a language in danger of dying.

But it’s people like Wren Gotts, and an online language instructor still teaching through a health pandemic, that might be part of the solution to make the Ojibwe language strong again.

Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) nations in the Great Lakes region. The Anishinaabe language was once spoken widely in these communities.
Credit Lintaro Kajiwara

Like her parents, Wren is a native English speaker, but her mom put a priority on helping her learn Anishinaabemowin as a way to connect with her tribal heritage and identity.

Rebecca Gotts, the mother of Wren Gotts.
Credit LinkedIn

“There’s nothing more important in our lives that is more important than the language, meaning it takes precedence literally over learning English, over certain things that she’s learning in kindergarten, and over soccer or T-ball,” Rebecca said. “We’re putting language as the number one priority.”

Wren thinks it’s important, in part because of the historical trauma tribes faced in America. That trauma includes actions that threatened to extinguish that language altogether.

“A long time ago, we had to cut our hair off and we couldn’t speak Anishinaabemowin,” Wren said.

The six-year-old used to go to regular classes and language camps, but those have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, most of her learning comes online, in the virtual classroom of Isadore Toulouse.

Isadore Toulouse's online class.

A native speaker, Toulouse has been teaching adults and children online for free for decades.

“It was the whole idea of bringing language into the homes of people that weren’t able to go to the community center, that weren’t able go to the friendship center, that weren’t able to get it in the classroom,” Toulouse said.

He conducts live sessions twice a day. People from across the United States and Canada, from adults to children like Wren, log in daily to learn and practice words, prayers, and conversation.

Dr. Margaret Noodin, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor of tribal language and director of the Electa Quinney Institute for American Indian Education.
Credit UW-Milwaukee

It’s a language facing serious challenges, said Dr. Margaret Noodin, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor of tribal language and director of the Electa Quinney Institute for American Indian Education.

“In almost no home is a child being raised with this as their first language, which means, at any given point in time, it is that close to being not used at all,” Noodin said.

Noodin cautioned Anishinaabemowin is neither a “living” nor a “dead” language. Instead, like other indigenous languages, it’s enmeshed in a complicated web of language health.

Dr. Wendy Makoons, who teaches the language at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said so-called “language warriors” are working on a family level, like in Wren’s family.

Dr. Wendy Makoons, an Ojibwe language professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Credit UW-Eau Claire

“The goal is to get the language back in families, back in the homes,” Makoons said. “That’s what people are really striving for.”

According to its speakers, Anishinaabemowin is more than a way of communicating and describing the world.

It’s an entire cultural and worldview.

That’s something more important than ever in trying to solve a global virus pandemic, Makoons said.

“If we don’t have these other perspectives, we’re all [bringing] the same toolbox to the table to solve a problem. We’re going to run out of ideas. We really need these indigenous languages,” she said.

In the middle of a health emergency, the online option is just about the only option for learning and spreading Anishinaabemowin.

Toulouse doesn’t even take off weekends.

Teaching is something that brings him joy.

“What makes me happy is having those little kids that log in that are able to communicate with me or with other people in Anishinaabemowin,” he said.

Rebecca Gotts says her six-year-old daughter, Wren, can now do things like order food in Anishinaabemowin.

In 2019, Wren Gotts was named the Sokaogon Chippewa Tiny Tot Princess.
Credit Rebecca Gotts

Last year, the language helped her gain a new title in the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, becoming the tribe’s Tiny Tot Princess.

Wren at first confused, then delighted, the competition’s judges, said her mother. Wren answered the judges’ questions in Anishinaabemowin instead of English.

“I think they were just so happy and impressed by that, that I think that that was a contributing factor on why she got chosen,” Rebecca Gotts said.

Because of the pandemic, Wren gets to hold onto her Tiny Tot Princess crown a little longer than usual, until a new princess is chosen.

But even when she gives it up, the language learning will continue.

“It just gives everyone so much hope that it’s being carried on and that it’s not going to die,” her mother said.

Six-year-old Wren Gotts.