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U of M American Indian Studies Department Launches Groundbreaking Online Ojibwe Dictionary

March 14, 2012

The University of Minnesota’s Department of American Indian Studies, in the College of Liberal Arts, has launched a ground-breaking online Ojibwe-English dictionary, the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, at The dictionary will be celebrated with a launch party on Monday, April 2, from 4 to 6 p.m. in the McNamara Alumni Center's Maroon & Gold Room. Ojibwe elders who contributed to the project will attend.

A New Standard for Indigenous Languages

“This sets the standard for how indigenous languages will be learned and preserved into the future,” said James A. Parente, Jr., dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary was conceived as a logical expansion of “A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe,” published by the University of Minnesota Press and co-written by John D. Nichols, professor in the American Indian studies department and one of the foremost Algonquian language experts. The printed dictionary contains 7,000 words, but the new website has 8,000 words and could grow to 30,000.

More than just a translation tool or a dictionary, the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary provides context. The entry for wild rice, for example, includes audio clips of four Ojibwe elders speaking the word manoomin; photos from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society and Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission; and snippets from texts, including meeting minutes, reports and research manuscripts dating from 1922.

Within the Ojibwe dictionary, objects “are in conversation with the language,” said Brenda Child, chair of the Department of American Indian Studies at the university. It’s a way of establishing cultural context through language. By merging the academic expertise of University scholars like Nichols with the visual resources of the Historical Society and others, the site is both casual and scholarly, cutting edge and useful to Native people who speak the language.

Why Preserve Ojibwe?

Like other indigenous languages around the world, Ojibwe is in decline for a number of reasons, including urban life, popular culture, the use of boarding schools for Native American children in the 19th and early 20th centuries and many more.

Linguists contend that language diversity is as important to our systems of knowledge as biological diversity is to our ecosystems. The Ojibwe language is a place where its people turn for philosophy, history, science, medicines, stories and spirituality.

Launch Event

The April 2 launch party will feature remarks by dean Parente and chair Child, plus a demonstration of the dictionary and an honoring of the elders who contributed their voices to the dictionary.

Significant funding for the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary came from Minnesota's Historical and Cultural Heritage Fund (i.e. Legacy fund), and the project has just been awarded another grant to support phase 2 of the dictionary, which will incorporate feedback from users, enhance the virtual museum and add youth-friendly features.

Professors from the Department of American Indian Studies, including Child and linguist Brendan Fairbanks, are available for interviews.

Quick facts:

  • Ojibwe is the heritage language of 200,000+ people in the Great Lakes region and Canada.
  • Ojibwe People’s Dictionary currently contains 30,000 words and 60,000 audio clips
  • Project partners: University of Minnesota Department of American Indian Studies, U of M Libraries, Minnesota Historical Society
  • Visual resources from: Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Historical Society
  • Funding from: Minnesota's Historical and Cultural Heritage Fund (Legacy fund), National Science Foundation


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