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The Heart of Ojibwe Language

Learning the Ojibwe language through the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis’s immersion class this summer was more about heart than the brain.

Biitooshkigan daga!” is the first phrase I learned in my Ojibwe language immersion class this summer at the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis. It means, “Give me the underwear, please!”

It is also the phrase that I remember best and will likely never forget. In order to be permitted to speak English in Brendan Fairbanks’ class you had to be holding a pair of men’s underwear tied into a ball.

I confess that I was a frequent bearer of the underwear during the three-week class in which about 20 students met five days per week for three hours each evening. According to Fairbank’s class rules, we were required to ask for the underwear in Ojibwemowin (the Ojibwe language) if we wanted to speak English. It was a teaching device designed to encourage us to pause and delve deeply into our memories for the Ojibwe words and phrases we’d just learned. It was effective and a bit humbling.


“But why underwear?” I asked Fairbanks, an Assistant Professor and Director of the Ojibwe Language Program in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.

He explained that the child’s play ball he had used in previous years became too dangerous. Apparently a student had misjudged the trajectory of the ball and took a hit to the head. She was unhurt but her glasses were knocked off and broken in the process.

Ojibwe Language

State of the art Ojibwe language immersion class at the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis included distance learning for students at Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal College in Wisconsin as seen on the monitor.

Enroute to the first meeting of our class, Fairbanks realized he had no substitute for the “English language” ball. Like our Ojibwe ancestors, who often invented on the fly, he grabbed the first soft clean piece of cloth at hand, underwear from the laundry basket, presumably the clean basket. Silently, we tacitly agreed not to ask.

Underwear aside, Fairbanks is a gifted linguistic who set a fast and lively pace during our time in his classroom. He earned a PhD and Masters of Arts degree in Linguistics at the University of Minnesota as well as a Bachelors of Arts in Linguistics at Brigham Young University.

Fairbanks used a teaching method called language patterns. In the language learning blog, The Linguistic the author explains that in this method, the instructor feeds students examples of patterns in the language in context through massive input. Rather than relying on grammar drills and complicated grammatical explanations, Fairbanks fed us mountains of examples of Ojibwe phrases and sentences, that quickly grew more complicated, building on information he’d provided in previous lessons. Just when I began to feel as though I might understand a phrase and its pattern for future use, however, Fairbanks would up the ante. My old lady brain would flounder as I tried to make the jump to a new level.

Ojibwe Language

His image reflected in the Distance Learning camera and display, Professor Brendan Fairbank teaches Ojibwe language immersion at the U of Minnesota-Minneapolis and Lac Courte Oreilles tribal college.

Fairbanks explained that his intent in teaching Ojibwe goes beyond helping students gain fluency and an ability to simply translate thoughts and words from English. His goal is for students to speak the language as our elders once did.

For instance, according to Fairbanks, there is no literal translation for the word “after” in Ojibwe, it is conveyed rather by context and sentence construction. Additionally, since Ojibwe does not contain any words that would be regarded as obscene, it is filled with nuance when conveying a sense of irritation or outrage with others. The addition of short verb endings such as “naa” or “sa” indicates a sense of firmness or finality.

The best way to learn Ojibwe, according to Fairbanks, is to speak from the heart rather than the brain.

Indeed, Ojibwe language and culture is filled with references to the “heart way.” It is a distillation for all things Ojibwe. Rather than relying on western based deductive reasoning, the heart way emphases spirituality and human relationship with the earth, plants, elements and animals, all of which are imbued with spirit.

Ojibwe Language

Jei Harold-Zamora searches for the right word during Ojibwe language immersion class while fellow student Aaron Hammerly looks on.

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It was my pursuit of the heart way that led me to enroll in the Ojibwe class. Elders tell us that the Creator hears our prayers best when they are offered in Ojibwe. While sitting in traditional gatherings, I am keenly aware of not understanding the language. Conversely, however, there were occasions while abandoning myself to the process of ceremony, that some part of my being or psyche seemed on the verge of understanding. Tantalized by this sensation of knowing but not knowing, I embarked on my Ojibwe immersion odyssey.

Although I’d learned French reasonably well in college and Nepali while living in Nepal in my late 20s, learning Ojibwe was decidedly more difficult. My age of course made the learning process slower; most of my classmates were millennials whose healthy young brains absorbed information much quicker than mine. I noticed, for instance, that after two and one half hours of the three-hour class, my brain would reach its capacity for Ojibwe and shut down. At these times, in fact, I seemed barely able to understand English. But there seemed to be an additional challenge that I didn’t identify until later.

I seemed almost frightened of making errors. While in Nepal, I grew inured to the guffaws from local merchants, cab drivers as well as school children when I tried out my newly learned language; it was simply part of the process as I soldiered on.

Fairbanks noted that other Ojibwe students have similar experiences. “If you’re Ojibwe and you don’t speak your language you may have a number of feelings such as anger or shame associated with that.”

Students may feel resentment over being denied the language from parents and/or school.

“There is an element of historical trauma associated with learning the language that may block the process,” he noted.

“You need to have your ducks in a row emotionally as an Ojibwe learning the language so you don’t let your ego succumb to shame,” Fairbanks said.

Indeed, I recall hearing my relatives whisper the forbidden language to each other. They would shush me angrily when I inquired about the secret words they were forbidden to use in boarding school. Although I was denied the meaning of the words, I received the unspoken message of shame.

The baggage of historical trauma so often carried with the language is why Fairbanks is determined to teach students the conceptual and cultural elements of Ojibwa in the classroom.


“If you don’t speak Ojibwe, you don’t have full access to the cultural nuances imbedded in our ways,” Fairbanks said.

In addition to teaching in the classroom, Fairbanks is conducting research into the conceptual elements of the language as spoken by Native speakers. The sentence construction and word usage by elders offer essential insight into the language and culture. His hope is to contribute to the education of language immersion teachers so they can move beyond teaching English translations.

For instance, Fairbanks declined to offer an English translation of his Ojibwe name Awanigaabaw. “Our Ojibwe names come from stories in Ojibwe. By translating them into English, we are renaming ourselves,” he said.

“If we are to grow more Native Ojibwe speakers, we need to ensure that our adult teachers have language for everything in life. They have to know how to argue in the language and survive in the world,” he said.

To that end, the Department of Indian Studies is teaming up with the University of Minnesota’s Living Learning Communities. Ojibwe language students can soon have the opportunity to live in an Ojibwe language only apartment or house according to Fairbanks. A date has not yet been set for the opening of the Ojibwewigamig (Ojibwe Immersion House).

As for me, my Ojibwe language skills have improved slightly; I will never forget how to ask for the underwear.

But I have also gained more understanding about the role Ojibwe language plays in my pursuit of the heart way.