It took years of hard work, and now Michael Sullivan of Lac Courte Oreilles can put “Doctor” in front of his name.
Sullivan just received his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, acquiring even more tools to help him pass on the Ojibwe language to LCO’s younger generation and keep it alive for years to come. He received his doctorate at a commencement ceremony April 29.
A lifelong resident of LCO, Sullivan is the first LCO Ojibwa Community College alumnus to earn a doctorate. Overall, there are about five or six LCO alumni who hold doctorates after graduating elsewhere, he noted.
“Hopefully other people will be inspired by that,” Sullivan said.
His path to success wasn’t an easy road. In his younger life, he said, he kept up with his studies and got good grades until about seventh grade, when he began getting into some trouble that culminated in him dropping out of high school during his senior year. However, he immediately returned to LCOOCC to get his high school equivalency degree (HSED).
“I enrolled in college many times, only to withdraw/flunk out,” he said. “On the last attempt, I had to file an appeal for re-admission due to my previous failures. Once I buckled down and sobered up, I tore it up at LCOOCC, graduating in 2002 with an A.A. degree in Native Studies.”
Sullivan took a five-year hiatus from school to travel extensively with his drum group, Pipestone, to perform at pow wows on weekends while working at News From Indian Country during the week. His first son, Nizhoo, was born in 2004, and Sullivan considered returning to school for a bachelor’s degree. He was accepted at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and began his bachelor’s studies in fall 2007.
“During this time I spent a great deal of time with the late Harold Bizhiki Frogg,” he said. “Bizhikiban taught me a great deal about our language and our spiritual views.”
Originally, Sullivan’s plan was to attend law school, but after seeing how LCO was losing many elders and the language wasn’t being taught at home, he felt the urge to contribute to the effort to prevent the Ojibwe language from all but dying out.
In October, his second son, Preston, was born and on that same day, Sullivan interviewed for the McNair Scholar’s Program and was selected for the 2008-09 school year. In 2009, he was selected as “Scholar of the Year” and graduated with honors with a bachelor’s degree in sociology that May. He realized “that wasn’t the end,” as he began planning on going to graduate school for an advanced degree in linguistics.
“During this journey I realized that the key to the health of our communities is our traditions and our spirituality,” he said. “It didn’t take much to realize that the key to our traditions and spirituality is our language.”
He began his further studies at the University of Minnesota, receiving a D.O.V.E. Fellowship as a member of the Community of Scholars. Through tutelage by Dr. John D. Nichols during the creation of the Ojibwe Peoples Dictionary (online) and his own research, he was able to work alongside Ojibwe-speaking elders from LCO, Lac du Flambeau, St. Croix, Lake Lena, Mille Lacs, East Lake, Sandy Lake, Leech Lake, Red Lake, Bois Forte and the Border Lakes region of Ontario, Canada.
After finishing his master’s in 2012, he was accepted into the Ph.D. program. To qualify, Sullivan said, he took written and oral exams, though he said the written could be substituted with work he had published in academic journals. He said once one passes the exams, you begin working on your dissertation.
In fall 2013, Sullivan was appointed to professor of Ojibwemowin at the College of St. Scholastica. He was driving to Duluth from LCO, 180 miles a day, four days a week. Then after two years, he was called home to work at the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School (where he is currently employed). So on top of his professorship with the Ojibwemowin program, driving, working two jobs, caring for his family and finishing his Ph.D. work on weekends, evenings and in the summer (with a lot of espresso consumed), he said it was “about a year of solid writing time” over the three years total it took to finish his dissertation.
“I owe it all to the baristas and librarians,” he joked.
On Tuesday, April 19, he successfully defended his 410-page dissertation, titled “Relativization in Ojibwe,” in front of a committee. He walked across the stage April 29 at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis to receive his doctorate in linguistics.
A bright future
As a doctor of linguistics, Sullivan said it will not only allow him to publish more work but gives him tools on how the Ojibwe language relates to cognitive development in youth. It will also make him more competitive for securing grants, and will tie his professional work into his work at Waadookodaading, where he is the school linguist.
He is currently working on a plan to create a user-friendly Ojibwe grammar course for Immersion School parents. Sullivan said while teaching at the school, which goes through sixth grade, he found many students enrolled aren’t learning it from their parents. This course will not only help the parents keep the language going, but create more communication in the families.
He said at Waadookodaading, the number of children who already spoke Ojibwe in the home is small but growing, and staff’s children and grandchildren are often speaking it already.
“That number’s getting bigger and bigger,” Sullivan said. “The future’s real bright.”
When asking students what they want to be when they grow up, he said about 95 percent say they want to come back to teach at the Immersion School. He encourages them to start small, especially at LCOOCC if they can, as he felt the college is a great springboard for them as it was for his career.
He said his great uncle was one of his mentors, and helped him have the courage to succeed, that there was nothing he couldn’t accomplish if he wanted it badly enough.
“I had all of the struggles and obstacles that typically block our people from acquiring knowledge in the modern educational system,” he said. “Poor decision making in my early adult years set me back, but did not prevent me from achieving success in academia. As a firm believer in our traditional ways and the power of our tobacco, I simply asked for guidance and followed the path of where the tobacco led me.
“If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Minawaanigwendan bimaadiziwin, aabajitoon gaa-kikinoo’maagooyan, debweyenindizon anishinaabewiyan! ‘Enjoy life, use what you have been taught, believe in yourself as an Anishinaabe person.’”