Join us for a conversation with Dustin Burnette. He shares his leadership journey and efforts to create an Indigenous immersion network — providing curricula, training, resources, and essential support to tribes in the Great Lakes region. We also discuss many more topics on this episode of Indigenized Connections On Air.
- Jason Schlender, former Extension leadership and civic engagement educator
- Dustin Burnette, Midwest Indigenous Immersion Network, executive director
- Find Indigenous language immersion resources on the following websites:
- Watch the Rosetta Stone Project introduction video from Mille Lacs.
- Learn more about leadership and civic engagement on our website through resources on growing leaders and strengthening leadership.
Read this episode's conversation below.
Note: Our Indigenized Connections On Air episodes are audio-based interviews. Written transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before referencing content in print.
Jay Schlender: Welcome to Indigenous Connections On Air, a podcast brought to you by the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality in the area of leadership and civic engagement, and also by the Minnesota Indigenous Leadership Network, which explores the issues that impact tribal communities and leadership throughout Minnesota. I'm your host, Jason Schlender, and I'm the American Indian leadership and civic engagement educator.
My guest today is from the Cass Lake area and is a highly respected Ojibwa language immersion educator. His innovation, charisma and approach to indigenous language immersion pedagogy is truly fascinating. So please welcome Dustin Burnett to the podcast.
Gimiwan (Dustin Burnette): Alright, boozhoo, thanks for having me. I feel strange to talk about me in a leadership position. I don't see myself as that still, but I've definitely had a really, really great experience getting to where I am now, professionally, in the work that I'm doing.
MIIM, which you mentioned is a non-profit, which I'm starting is the Midwest Indigenous Immersion Network. The purpose of that non-profit is to help with facilitation and collaboration between Ojibwe immersion schools in the region here. Hopefully in the future expanding to help other communities, if what we do is actually successful and helpful, but my path that I started as a teenager in Cass Lake Minnesota, just a regular Cass Lake kid, I guess, like anybody else.
I lost my mom, and it kind of turned my whole world upside down and really sent me looking for who I was. I didn't have that guidance anymore, so I wanted to know who I was and what I was about and what all this crazy stuff was about, and I searched everywhere to look. I couldn't find anything. And then this guy came into my life through the schools, I guess, Cass Lake High School, Sean Fahrlander, and a really great guy kind of showed up for me and showed me that I had more options than just the Euro-American, Christian-based concepts that I had in my life to that point. And really opened the doors for me as to what it was to be an Ojibwe person, really gave me that sense of identity that I didn't know I was missing.
And he signed me up for college forged my name on my enrollment papers, amazing. Got me set up in a nice university with the great crew who really walked me along towards being an educator. He also got me involved in ceremonies and other community connections, but from that point, moving on after college, my teaching degree, I still was a Cass Lake kid. So I had a chip on my shoulder and thought the world owed me something and a job would fall into my lap, I don't need to apply.
I was God's gift to man, I just finished college, I was 21, and here August came and I didn't have a job but the bills are stacking up, so I took the first job that I saw, and that was teaching kindergarten and first grade immersion at many over at Niigaane over at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in Bena, Minnesota, so definitely out of my wheelhouse, but I took it on and I was very blessed and lucky enough to be paired up with some wonderful first language speakers from Rosemary de Bunge and Leona Wakonabo, with Gerri Howard, Steve Jackson, and Marlene Stately.
But it was that experience working with those others and working with other fantastic educators at the school that really started to propel me towards my love for Ojibwe education in our communities. From there, I went on to come over here to Lac Courte Orielles, where I worked at Waadookodaading for 10 years also in an instructional capacity, and at that point during that time, I just continued to really be blessed enough to make connection with speakers in Mille Lacs and or here in Wisconsin, and other professionals working in the same field.
Through all of that and all those experiences in those 13 years in the classroom, working at a couple of these Ojibwe Immersion Schools, that I was able to start working with the other schools and other communities working on Ojibwe immersion in one capacity or another. And after all this time, you know, we've all definitely seen some holes in what we do, we're all just so very busy trying to keep the doors open where we're at and trying to keep the bus going forward that we don't always have time to deal with our internal issues or our big planning meetings. So I decided to take a step back from education, or not from education but from teaching for a while, and trying to focus on some of our bigger needs as a language learning community.
And for me, the way I'm trying to go about it is, like I said earlier, is to bring the different organizations together, bring them all to the same table and start to identify how we can kind of take some of the weight off each other's shoulders, you know kind of how can share this burn to kind of open up some more time and resources for each individual community, while simultaneously bringing together, what we do have to increase the opportunity for all of our students, and all of our families, and all our educators are out there really giving it their all, including all their time to try to make sure that we have for the language revitalization.
Jay Schlender: And so you mentioned the Midwest Indigenous Immersion network, correct? What was the vision for that, where the vision come from?
Gimiwan (Dustin Burnette): A big shout out to our mutual friend, Melissa Boyd (Baabitaw) who was a founder of NIIM. They contacted me about three years ago, and Bobbie [diminutive of her Ojibwe name Baabitaw] was applying for a Bush fellowship, and she said, hey, here's my idea, we call it MIIM. Here's what it means: Midwest Indigenous Immersion Network. MIIM is an acronym but it means blueberry in Ojibwe. It kind of outlines some ideas and concepts around bringing the different schools together.
And they said “we want you to be charitable.” And they’re like, no, why not? Because I couldn't imagine sitting in the background and watching someone else do that, I need to do that, you know. But of course, I kept participating and I started planning stuff out, and I kept contacting the ladies trying to have a follow-up meeting. And they're both too busy and one of them had time, and Melissa ended up changing the direction of her fellowship, and MIIM went by the wayside for a couple of years, while nobody else was thinking about continuing, I was finding and thinking and brainstorming and having all these fun ideas of what it could possibly be and how helpful it could be.
And then eventually I decided I needed a break from my classroom. Thirteen years inside of four walls and I thought I'm 34 and I've never done anything but stand inside these four walls, and I think maybe I pull my head out of the rabbit hole and see if there isn't something more I can be doing to be more helpful and more effective for our communities.
Jay Schlender: So what are the steps for it, because you get to the point where you're like, well, I want to do this, I want to pick up this work which is non-profit, but how do you get buy-in? How do you get someone to fund it?
Gimiwan (Dustin Burnette): You tell me!
Jay Schlender: Do you just go to say, “Hey, I got this, you want to be a part of MIIM?”
Gimiwan (Dustin Burnette): Kind of. So there are a few steps. Like I said, I've been really lucky to work with most of these organizations over the years, whether as a curriculum developer or hosting professional development for young teachers, [or] assessing, and I've been able to build relationships with these different organizations which was great for a start. And this is something that is, like I said, it's all I've done since I was a teenager or 21 years old, pretty much a kid still, and this is all I know, but it's something I know well, so I felt really confident that I could go after this and hopefully make a positive impact.
So the first thing I did was, so I did what I guess we all probably do is I went to my peers as well, I met mentors, my peer mentors and I talked to them, I ran it by them by them, acouple of my family members. I started to talk to my wife; I was hoping she’d hold me back, but she's like, oh, just great. So a lot of support from her, but really just reaching out, kind of testing the waters with some of my mentors to see if this is something that they might be interested in participating in those who were already in the field.
And then once I got some positive feedback from there, I would be excited when I was feeling it and it was taking off and trying it out. I started doing some research, and I actually got really lucky. I was finishing out my master's at the College of St. Scholastica in education and had a couple of credits left, like four credits, so I wanted to do independent study, where I actually went in academic research on the formations of collaborations and third sector parties working inside of public schools.
And it was that research that really held to make it even into past this first year, as they are a lot of times I’d get my head down with the lack of participation or I’d find discouragement. I struggled with paying for all the out of pocket to this point and have go back to my research and remind myself that, hey, that's not abnormal, it takes time to develop these relationships.
In addition to that, we're all stuck on Zoom, none of us could see each other. I couldn't even go and offer tobacco at the time when I was contacting the school initially because we weren't allowed to go anywhere. So you know, there are some hurdles in that, but that research was a really, really helpful tool for me to say, Hey, this...
I know that this is normal. I know some tools to combat it or to address these needs, also did some research on survey development so that I could develop and send out an appropriate survey that would help measure the stakeholders needs and wants, while simultaneously outlining some of the commonalities that I saw when building this, so that I could share that with future funders.
Jay Schlender How do you fund a project like this, where do you go? Do you get donations or?
Gimiwan (Dustin Burnette): Well, that’s still new. So I tried a couple of different things. It's mainly the first year that has been out of pocket. It hasn’t been a great financial cost, it's been a great time cost and a great energy cost. But financially, I'm sure 500 to 1,000 bucks into travel and office equipment and Zoom membership. And anyway, for the most part, it was self-funded. I even tried to eliminate myself from different reimbursement opportunities from different tribes and organizations, so as to keep what I was doing non-biased.
I didn’t want to be accepting money from one of the organizations for the work that I was doing if the work that I'm doing is drawing on other peoples’ work, so I'm asking organizations to submit their curriculum for organization and dissemination, but I don't want to be seen as profiting financially on somebody who's still doing a job that I can't anymore and just sticking it out in the classroom, so it was kind of unclear.
At first, we would find funding and then I was really lucky enough and super blessed, I actually just had our first convening over the past two days to be accepted as a loose indigenous knowledge fellow, and that was really extremely generous and lucky acceptance into that program, that's going to really help kick off the non-profits, so it's the financial contributions of equipment, paperwork and legal work, things of that, so that's been a really nice step in the right direction as far as funding goes, and then once the 501c3 status is official, that I can start drawing upon hopefully some of my board members’ individual expertise to start looking for some additional funding.
Jay Schlender: So what is the structure mean then? You talked about board members. So is there a certain structure to your board?
Gimiwan (Dustin Burnette): You know, it's just come together, so I have contacted all the board and we've identified their individual positions, so I've got a lot of shout-outs if that's okay. I don't know if any of them will hear it, but Ms. Gonzales will be our chair. And Dr. Michael Sullivan. I’ve got Bill House. Baabitaw, being that this is her idea. She knows better than anybody, what I'm trying to do here. And then a gentleman named Tim Slackard, it was funny. We're kind of laughing about it says, Wow, it's amazing to be the minority on the board for once. He's a Caucasian male, but in this circumstance, he's the only non-Ojibwe on the board, and he's an educator here at the secondary school in Wisconsin. The foundation will actually be based in Minnesota, but the head office will be here in Wisconsin.
Jay Schlender Is there any specific institutions that are part of MIIM or any criteria for being a part of MIIM?
Gimiwan (Dustin Burnette): That's a great question. Yeah, so when I started, the Ojibwe nation is huge, right? There's so many of us and so many different reservations. What is it? Seven Minnesota, five in Wisconsin. Six in Wisconsin, Mole Lake, one in North Dakota, one or two in Michigan. And then you've got so many reserves and Canada so we’re so widespread, and there are so many projects going on with language right now, how to identify a realistic measure of who I could include in this initial contact.
So what I told myself is I would only contact organizations that offer 100% immersion of Ojibwe language and who have been in existence and operation for the past five consecutive years. So I did that and I came up with the list of eight organizations in Minnesota, Wisconsin...
Actually, seven in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin. But then through those initial contacts a couple of the program stakeholders had requested that we bring in a couple of other organizations that were kind of on the border of either full immersion or that five-year mark, but really put in a lot of hard work and really had a lot to offer and can benefit from this partnership, so right now we're at 11 organizations.
Once again, our mutual friend Kekek Stark helped us out with some documentation legally, so we can start working towards legal agreements between districts or tribes and organizations. I think we have, I think we're at seven committed organizations as far as just a base commitment, and then four signed MOUs to start sharing all curriculum and materials, which will soon go on to the new website, which is under construction. And that will be open to the public.
So for example, Duluth Public Schools agreed to join which is fantastic. So that means we can have the K-5 curriculum that they use in their school for immersion, combine it with, for example, Mille Lacs K-1 curriculum and Pre-K curriculum, and combine that with the Niigaane and now families at home or other communities who want to start immersion or even other immersion communities can now say, alright, I'm teaching a five-year-old and it's ricing season, I have seven different ricing units to choose from, look at this plethora of language books, materials, and opportunity for our community with language.
And that's something that we haven't had to this point, it's been a lot of where do I look, who do I call? They might have something. Some of the ones that have these combined efforts of 100 years and millions of dollars with a curriculum development and personnel development, lexicon projects available for everybody.
And that's the first step, right? So the first step is, what can we do right now, and that's just combine our resources. But there's more, then we move on towards what else you to combine? Professional development, field-specific conferences, data tracking and recruiting, teacher development. There's so much that we need as a movement that we can do so much easier if we put in some front line and put our heads together, and that's really the basis of the MIIM is how can we move our effort from this incredible height we've already found way, way higher.
Jay Schlender So you mentioned Ojibwe immersion. Are you looking at other indigenous immersion programs or maybe target some other tribes that are in the region?
Gimiwan (Dustin Burnette): Eventually, yes. So I know Rocco and I have talked a bit about this. He said, “don't forget about us.” And I said, “I won’t, but we're busy too.” You know I love our brothers over there, and I super want to help them, and like I said, I'm hoping that what we're trying to do here will be successful and helpful.
That's the whole point of this, we just want to help. Not how we want to ... I've seen so many of my peers lose years with their kids, because they're so busy trying to make sure that their students have something the next morning. I've seen the burnout rate increase, increase, increase, when bottom line is a huge burnout rate in the field, where we lose great educators and great speakers who just can't do it anymore, so exhausting and demanding, and to be able to help any of that through this project would be an incredible service to everybody involved.
Jay Schlender So there's a lot of exciting things going on in Indian country. When I say Indian Country specifically talking about Minnesota, Wisconsin, Great Lakes area of Indian Country.
Gimiwan (Dustin Burnette): The best Indian Country! [Laughter]
Jay Schlender We all have our own biases, but with obviously it think it’s really exciting with the Midwest Indigenous Immersion Network. One thing I've mentioned on our previous podcast is the Aanjibimaadizing project over in Mille Lacs, the work that they're doing. Is that something that you're working on also?
Gimiwan (Dustin Burnette): Yes sir, am very lucky to participate in book projects there in the past several years. What were some really fantastic speakers and gentlemen between Obizaan and [unintelligible]. It's always great to work with peers of the same age, also second language speakers, so really fantastic project bringing in local Mille Lacs elders, letting their voices be heard and putting them in print and making sure that their grandkids can have that, the great-grandkids can see and really showing those elders their true worth with what they have in language and culture. It’s a fantastic program.
I'm still working on the Rosetta Stone project as well, which I believe is part of that Aanjibimaadizing project, because once again am super lucky, so blessed professionally. I got brought on a year ago working on the Rosetta Stone project as an SME, which I guess is a subject matter expert, but I don't see it that way. I see it as a guy who looks at 4,000 spreadsheets a day to write three lines of practice activities. But really exciting, it's a six-year project with six separate levels, all scaffolded to increase language use and comprehension and learners and really exciting.
I was actually asked my boss if I could talk about it in this podcast, and he said, I can't give a day but you can say Fall of 2021, you should be able to contact the Mille Lacs Band Ojibwe for the first level of Rosetta Stone Ojibwe programming. And level two, I think it will take another year after that because things down for everybody, so after level one drops I'm sure before the 12 months is the Level two will be ready and then yearly after that up to Level six.
Jay Schlender So speaking of Covid too, obviously, it slowed down a lot of projects that were going on in a lot of our different communities, but what's your take on Covid? Did it impact you in your efforts as far as developing MIIM or has it not impacted you?
Gimiwan (Dustin Burnette): Globally and community-wise, it's impacted between the losses of native speakers and members and our absence of being able to participate in ceremony and in our general community life. It's definitely slowing down a lot of things there.
As far as the work for starting the non-profit, I don't know? Like I said earlier in the podcast, I would have preferred to start this process the Ojibwe way, to take some quilts and tobacco and go to these communities and say, hey, we’ve got work to do ... I'm going to break my back for you. Here are some gifts, I love you. We didn't get to start that way, which wasn't preferred, but luckily, we're a small community, the Ojibwe community is a small community sometimes, a lot of us already have standing relationships, so we were able to go ahead and start building anyway. As far as slowing down the work, I don't think I left my desk in 10 years, let alone in the past year. I don't know. So I’m either going outside, I'm working, I have no idea.
Jay Schlender Sometimes it's just ... I'm just thinking just maybe it's just maybe like you said of pocket, so sometimes it could be just travel funding or travel money or gas money to get to and from a certain area. So some people I know that I know that are working have been working through Covid, that they see in this virtual platform as kind of a blessing in disguise because you're still able to meet, you don't have to travel so much, you can be in your home, you can still stay safe and not put yourself at risk, but...
Gimiwan (Dustin Burnette): Absolutely, and that has. And maybe in retrospect, maybe a few years out in the road, we'll see that that was actually a huge help in getting this started. I mean the basis of our programming is to bring almost a dozen separate organizations who have worked in silos; competed against each other for funding through brands; competed with each other through personnel links of our limited educated or licensed educator speaking staff to take these different organizations who are so busy and so encompassed by just keeping their community going, to make them find time to sit down at the same table with ten other programs?
Yeah, I don't know if we could have done that without everybody already sitting on their computer, so it may be that that was an opportune time to say, hey, everybody knows how to use Zoom. That's cool. Everybody's already sitting at home on their computer, I’m betting everyone can carve out an hour twice a week. I was wrong on that last bet. [Laughter.] Still working on that.
Jay Schlender As we kind of close up here, what's the future? What does the future look like for the Midwest Indigenous Immersion Network?
Gimiwan (Dustin Burnette): Oh man, big hope is in the next year or so, like I said, the 501c3 should be official by fall. We really hoping we can start applying for funding as soon as possible to start reaching out, we have a couple of different organizations in mind to reach out to, then just open calls for grants, and big hope is some time in the next 18 months that I can hire a few employees. I'd really love to start a couple of those other goals of the programming beyond curriculum.
So I think it'd be the best job in the world, and I would love to do it, but I'm sure someone else would love to do it even more. I want to find an employee and funding for an employee whose sole job is to track Ojibwe students in the public education system in Minnesota and Wisconsin, identify who's receiving Ojibwe language instruction, identifying more curriculums being used, and then start assessing and juxtaposing the effectiveness of different curriculums, different methods and start to really identify how we can reach out beyond our immersion schools into the public education sector with Ojibwe language.
Beyond that, the same staff person could track those same students through their primary and secondary experience, if they have a knack or interest in language to recruit them into appropriate secondary or post-secondary education, continue to work with those same students, continue to track and hopefully help them develop and find their ways into meaningful roles in the communities who have employment options for people who want to be working with language and culture in Ojibwe country.
And then, of course, we need more personnel for other roles as well, but that one would be my big hope is sometime soon we can start doing that, because I'll tell you, if you were for Sean, picking me up by the nape of my neck and saying, hey man, you have worth, and you can do something for your community, and it's going to do something for you at the same time.
You know, if it weren't for someone doing that for me, forging my name on my enrollment papers, I’d have never went to college, I would have never seen worth in myself in this community of language revitalization, and I wouldn't be sitting here today and thinking that we could have a full-time position a person going out and telling kids hey man, you have value, you have worth, you have opportunity to be a professional Ojibwe and to do what you love. That would be so cool.
Jay Schlender Absolutely. So people out there listening, maybe they're inspired by your story about the work that you do and how do they get a hold of you? Without disclosing any numbers. Do you have a website coming up?
Gimiwan (Dustin Burnette): The website will be coming up sometime early fall, it'll be It will be miim-ojibwe.org. Our contact information will be there. I can put on my email address on there.
Jay Schlender We can probably will take all your information when we post the podcast on the website for Extension, you know we'll have different links and how people can get a hold of you in or for different organizations want to contribute to your efforts, and I will make sure that those links and those ways are available to them so that you can get the resources and the things that you need lightened. Miigwetch. Appreciate your time!
Miigwetch to Dustin Burnette for joining today's podcast. To learn more about leadership and civic engagement, go to extension.umn.edu/community-development/leadership-and-civic-engagement, where you will find more resources on growing leaders and strengthening leadership. Make sure to follow the Minnesota Indigenous Leadership Network on Facebook, www.facebook.com/umn.indigineous.leadership.network, where you can view the impressive list of participants and resources of the Midwest Indigenous Immersion Network, and also to stay up-to-date on research and resources for tribal communities and tribal leadership. We do hope you will join us again for another episode of Indigenous Connections On Air.
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