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Feature

Amber Ruel sits on a concrete ledge in Lily Plaza.

U student Amber Ruel's dedication to preserving the Ojibwe language has made her a state finalist for the national Frank Newman Leadership award.

Sounding good

U student helps give new life to Ojibwe language

By Stephanie Wilkes

May 30, 2007

Growing up in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, outside of Milwaukee, Amber Ruel was aware of her heritage as a member of the Bay Mills Band of Ojibwe. But she didn't speak the language at home or have contact with her native community. She had an "identity crisis, of sorts," she says. Seeking a college, Ruel chose the University of Minnesota because of its American Indian studies program, hoping to meet other American Indians, learn the language, and figure out what being Indian meant to her.

After three years of Ojibwe language instruction and a range of community experience, Ruel's favorite phrase is simple but significant.

"Giminotaagoz anishinaabemoyan," she says. "It means, 'You sound good when you speak Ojibwe.' It's the most encouraging thing I have ever heard. Ojibwe is such a hard language to learn, but whenever I hear this phrase from my teachers or from elders in the community, it reminds me why I am doing what I am doing and how important the language is to me."

Dedication to preserving the Ojibwe language has made Ruel the state finalist for the national Campus Compact's Frank Newman Leadership Award. She has a chance to win $5,000 and national recognition for her work in Minnesota to prevent the extinction of Ojibwe language.

Ojibwe, currently spoken by about 55,000 people in Canada and the United States, was once the language of Great Lakes fur trade. Today an estimated 175,000 people of Ojibwe heritage live in North America, the largest group of First Nations people north of Mexico and the third largest group in the United States after the Cherokee and the Navajo.

"Amber has such clarity of purpose and passion for preservation of the language," says Meghan Paul-Cook, a program manager for Minnesota Campus Compact.

"Ruel was an easy choice for the state finalist," says Meghan Paul-Cook, program manager for Minnesota Campus Compact, which chose her as state representative in the competition. "The decision was unanimous. We really could not choose anyone else. An incredible personal transformation has gone along with her engagement in the community, and Amber has such clarity of purpose and a passion for preservation of the language."

Ruel's engagement has spanned a range of activities on and off campus. But all of her work centers around the primary goal of getting younger generations to interact with the language.

"It was really scary the first time I heard the language was one generation away from extinction," says Ruel. "It made me think: How do you motivate younger people to learn it?"

Ruel's first connection on campus came in Comstock residence hall, living her freshman year in the American Indian Cultural House, a living and learning community. Then, as a sophomore, Ruel became the housing community's resident adviser, working to build a closer community and ensure greater successes of native students in college.

The greatest resource for language learning and personal support was Ojibwe classes, taught by Dennis Jones, a teaching specialist in the Department of American Indian Studies. Ruel and her classmates formed a close bond, meeting an hour a day, five days a week, for two years. Their strong relationship and eagerness to continue learning the language motivated the class to petition for a third year of Ojibwe instruction and then develop the curriculum. This spring, Ruel served as a teaching assistant for the first-year Ojibwe class.

"It was really cool to finally be able to teach the language in a formal setting, to test my knowledge," says Ruel.

Community engagement

Since her freshman year, Ruel has participated in the University's Community Engagement Scholars Program. Off campus, she has gained experience engaging with members of the local American Indian community. On Monday nights, she joins graduate student Brendan Fairbanks at the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center (AIOIC) on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis for language tables. The weekly potluck brings together the local Ojibwe community for more lessons and a way to connect with elders.

Ruel also volunteers at the Ginew/Golden Eagle after-school program of the Minneapolis American Indian Center. Ginew (the Ojibwe word for golden eagle) encourages healthy living and strong academic habits among local American Indian youth.

"Some of the kids are in Ojibwe immersion programs, so sometimes they have learned things that I have not," says Ruel. "It is really great to be able to learn from each other and just be able to speak Ojibwe with someone who is younger than you are."

When Campus Compact announces the award winner, Ruel won't be sitting at home waiting to hear. She will be in Canada, working as an immersion language teacher at an American Indian language camp in Nigigoonsiminikaaning, a First Nation community in Ontario. And if she wins the award, she won't spend it on herself but on others.

Ruel wants to create tools to make Ojibwe language learning easier and more up to date. She wants to buy an iMac and language recording software to integrate podcasts, language conferencing, and other teaching supplements into the curriculum to make it more accessible. She would also like to give back to those who have helped her along the way, hiring community elders as consultants to contribute their knowledge about the language.

If the language dies out, it is only a matter of time before the people are no more, says Ruel. The University plays an important role in preserving the language and fostering community growth.

Ruel's goals extend beyond language preservation. In addition to her American Indian studies major, she's pursuing a social justice minor. She finds the combination necessary and complementary.

"I cannot focus on the language alone," says Ruel. "The other half of my work is focused on social justice, teaching about white privilege and being responsible global citizens. Both the language and the social justice issues need to come together, which is something I learned through my service in the community."

"Public engagement has been a key part of Ruel's journey," says Laurel Hirt, the Twin Cities campus director of service-learning and community involvement, who recommended Ruel for the Campus Compact award. "She uncovered a part of herself, her history, and heritage that she did not know before, and it has been a very powerful experience for her."

In the boarding school era, many native people like Ruel's mother, were forced to speak English and lost much of their Ojibwe language. Today, Ruel hopes to breathe life back into the language.

"I want an immersion school," she says. "When kids go to math class or science class, it would be in Ojibwe. I want the curriculum to include culturally relevant material, and I know it can be done. For example, when students learn about astronomy in science class, they could learn about native constellations and the stories behind them. It would help them to know who they were, so they would not have to be lost anymore, like I was."

If the language dies out, it is only a matter of time before the people are no more, Ruel says. The University plays an important role in preserving the language and fostering community growth.

"The U of M is a land-grant university, but it is also built on American Indian land," says Ruel. "The University has a responsibility to serve its community, and the native population is a large part of that community."


Stephanie Wilkes is a junior in English and linguistics and a communications intern in the Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail wilk0268@umn.edu.