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Alex DeCoteau teaches first Ojibwe class at Minot State

Submitted Photo Alex DeCoteau, who is teaching an online Ojibwe class at Minot State, is pictured with his father, George “Makwa Mishtatim” DeCoteau.

Alex DeCoteau, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is teaching a class in the Ojibwe language online this semester at Minot State. DeCoteau said in an email last month that he believes it is the first time MSU has ever offered a class in Ojibwe.

“I’m hoping indigenous students will get an amount of healing from the genocide that has prevailed our history with colonization,” said DeCoteau in the email. “I’m hoping the non-indigenous students will learn that Ojibwe people and culture are not a threat to their own.”

DeCoteau said that learning a different language also means learning about a different culture and taking a different perspective and view of the world, one’s existence, and relationship to the universe. He sees many possible benefits, both for tribal members and for non-tribal members, in learning the language.

“For indigenous, any amount of healing will better the quality of their lives and the lives of their family,” said DeCoteau in the email. “They will learn Ojibwe teachings that they can use every day to gain and maintain a healthy, balanced life. An enhanced (healthy) pride and self-image will be useful in all aspects of their lives and the lives of their families. For non-indigenous, an understanding of indigenous culture could help reconciliation with indigenous people. This could also provide some healing for them from their history as colonizers. This will benefit their relationships with indigenous people that they may encounter in all aspects of their lives.”

DeCoteau said in the email that he did not grow up speaking Ojibwe himself but learned the language as an adult.

“Since I was a little boy, I always loved to hear the elders when they talked,” said DeCoteau. “It was so beautiful, soothing, like a river. So, I have been learning what I can since then. I did not grow up speaking (the language). That didn’t come until my adopted grandfather taught me a prayer in Ojibwe and I learned that to use in ceremony. I was in my late 20’s then.”

DeCoteau said learning the language as an adult did take quite a bit of work on his part, but he learned by every means possible.

“Like any skill: time, effort, critical thinking, and commitment made it happen and continue to make it happen,” he said in the email. “However, the decisive factor is the first language speakers (those whose first language they learned was Ojibwe) willingness to teach. Reading (out loud), writing, listening, asking questions, listening, visiting elders, listening, speaking to myself, listening, speaking to and listening to my son. As much as I could, I created my own ‘Ojibwe immersion environment”.

Students in the online course will be learning basic Ojibwe phrases and about Ojibwe culture, which will help them understand the language.

While the class is online, DeCoteau said he would like to eventually also teach the class in a face-to-face setting.

“Yes, I would love to do that,” said DeCoteau in the email. “That would allow for learning strategies not available online. Also, learning, from an indigenous pedagogy, is co-created between teacher and student. An in person learning environment would promote this.”

Decoteau said there are not enough speakers of Ojibwe at Turtle Mountain right now. He said in the email that the curriculum is dominated by English.

“This could be an example of systemic racism,” said DeCoteau in the email. “Our indigenous students are required to take English every year from Kindergarten to grade 12. Whereas there is no requirement for them to take a single year of their own Ojibwe language.”

DeCoteau said in the email that he grew up on the Turtle Mountain reservation and graduated from Turtle Mountain Community High School in Belcourt in 1983. He earned an associate degree from what was then NDSU Bottineau and then went on to earn an eminence Ojibwe Language teaching license from Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt in 2004. At one time he worked as an assistant Ojibwe language teacher, an educational consultant, and a cultural consultant at Turtle Mountain Community College.

DeCoteau said in the email that he earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Education from the University of Minnesota-Duluth at the White Earth Tribal and Community College in Mahnomen, Minn., in 2009 and, last year, earned a Master’s in Education at Minot State University.

“At this time in world history, the environment, our home, the earth is in danger of existence,” said DeCoteau in the email. “Now, more than ever, the world’s people would benefit from the teachings and practices of indigenous people (to live in harmony with nature) to accomplish sustainability for our future generations.

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