Long before fur traders and miners roamed the shores of Lake Superior, one of the largest Indian nations on the continent called the U.P. home.
Although English settlers preferred to call them Chippewas, the Ojibwe’s presence once stretched from Minnesota to eastern Ontario. But, now their numbers are dwindling with only a few patches of reserves scattered throughout the Upper Midwest.
One of the largest remaining strongholds can be found in Baraga County, where a group of three Indian women are doing everything they can to keep their native tongue alive.
This may look like a typical preschool, but if you listen closely you’ll hear the difference.
The name of the preschool is the Ojibwe Language Nest and rightfully so because teachers nurture their students’ heritage and preserve a language that would otherwise be lost.
Back in the winter of 2009, Deborah Williamson and two fellow KBIC members started Turtle Island Cultural Services, a non-profit Indian corporation aimed to reclaim its ancestor’s heritage through self-determination.
After writing in for an Administration for Native Americans federal grant, Williamson received the funding necessary to build the Nest and give kids a chance to learn a language that nearly skipped a generation.
“I wasn’t raised with the language,” remembered Williamson. “I didn’t know my grandma could even speak it until I was in my early 30’s. When went to a ceremony together and grandma’s all of a sudden translating everything that was being said. I was shocked. I had only learned at that time, too, that she had been at the Assinins Mission Boarding School here for most of her life, I believe. She raised her children in fear of losing them, and so she raised them without the language and the culture. It didn’t get passed on, so my mom didn’t learn the language and it didn’t get passed on to us.”
But by the mid 1980’s, both Deborah and her mother changed their lives. They stopped drinking and reinvented themselves around the culture.
The first step: a traditional ceremony for Deborah’s daughter Christine.
“I think I cried for two, three hours after that ceremony,” Williamson said while holding back a few tears. “But, I made a commitment that I was going to bring that language and culture back to our family and to our lives. That’s what has been missing to keep us whole. I watched my family be strong. My children grew up sober and they’re both living the culture, and we’re doing it with the children. We believe that when the children grow up with the language and culture they’re going to have a strong identity, and they’re going to make better decisions in their lives.”
Christine now leads the next generation of Ojibwe speakers in the classroom five days a week, year–round, teaching not only everything an average preschooler should know but also translating materials for a near-extinct language.
“Each week I do a new lesson. Some are with books, some are with the seasons, some are with whatever is going on like holidays, but yes when it comes to lessons we do all of our own,” noted Lead Instructor Christine Awonohopay. “We have to translate whatever we are going to learn and it’s definitely a bigger task than most.”
But if it wasn’t for Christine and Deborah and everyone else that contributes to the Language Nest, Ojibwemowin might be lost forever.
“In the 70’s I found a report that we had, I think it was about 15 speakers left. But, from then until now we only have one,” remarked Williamson.
“Culture was a big part of my life when I was in high school, so I knew that that was the only way we were going to be able to keep this going – if I kept it going, too,” Awonohopay added. “To me it’s not a job. It’s much more than that. I truly enjoy working with these children and seeing each day they give me gift; seeing their excitement in the language, in the culture. Hearing what they learned, what they retained, what they know – it excites me and keeps me doing what I’m doing.”
But in order for that to happen, they need funding because once a class graduates from the Language Nest they go to public schools where Ojibwemowin is not spoken.
“The next level will be a survival school – Ojibwemowin Survival School. We’re waiting to hear on that [Native American Language Preservation and Maintenance-Esther Martinez Immersion] grant. The children that are currently attending and have attended in the past that are off in kindergarten will be able to come back and continue to learn,” Williamson smiled. “That’s the only way that I have figured out to keep the language alive – is to keep it involved and incorporated within their school.”
“These kids are so excited about what they’re learning and doing that they bring it home. They teach their parents and they are teaching their siblings. The parents are excited to learn with them and keep going. I hope that spark keeps them learning, and keeps them going and doing what they’re doing,” remarked Awonohopay.
If you’d like to help support the program, you can contact the organization at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 906-395-0276.