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Language and Culture Revitalization on the Agenda at Gabeshiwin

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians hosted an Ojibwe Language and Culture Camp for youth featuring culture, lacrosse and language.

For the second year in a row, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians hosted an Ojibwe Language and Culture Camp for youth. The camp was held on August 5-7 at the Ponemah Round House.

The three-day Gabeshiwin (camp) hosted by Red Lake Chemical Health, Red Lake Economic Development and Planning, and the Boys and Girls Club featured eating traditional foods, lacrosse, games, plant gathering practices and identification, birch bark crafts, traditional Anishinaabe teachings and more. Gabeshiwin is a part of Red Lake Nation’s Ojibwemowin revitalization efforts.

Concerned that language and tradition will disappear as elders die, natives of Red Lake Nation—and across the country—are focused on language revitalization and related efforts to retain tribal culture. Much of indigenous culture depends on native language, as many concepts cannot be translated to English.

“Our language was basically stripped from us a generation or two ago,” explained Sam Strong, director of Red Lake Economic Development. “The children were forbidden to talk their native language.”

A living generation still remembers how U.S. government authorities swept onto reservations and carried Ojibwe children off to boarding schools to assimilate them into white culture. The ripple effects of that are still being felt by American Indians today.

“We feel if we can raise people’s self-esteem their chance of using alcohol and drugs will be less,’’ said elder and fluent speaker Murphy Thomas. “Self-esteem is all tied up with knowing who you are and having a sense of pride in your heritage, language and culture.”

“The overall philosophy is to re-connect all people to nature and inevitably to themselves,’’ explained Spiritual Advisor Eugene Stillday, an elder and first speaker. “We know that history is a living part of the present.’’

Gabeshiwin Activities

Mostly traditional foods were served, in addition to a few bologna sandwiches. Afternoon activities included plant identification, working with birch bark, natural foods lessons, lacrosse, and Ojibwemowin. At each days end, Miigwechiwendam (Circle Time) was held. During this time, youth would hear words from elders and teachers, and review the day’s activities.

“Ladies will talk with girls, and men with boys,” began an orientation at the beginning of camp, which included an emphasis on safety.

Michael Meuers

Gender talks with the girls during the Ojibwe Language and Culture Camp.

Kids were taught how to introduce themselves with their Spirit or Indian name. It was explained that it is important to know your family, where you come from, your clan or doodem. Kids quickly learned to say Indizhinikaaz Makoons (My Name is Little Bear), for example.

“When you use your spirit name, remember that it connects you to everything, to everything that lives,” said Obaashiing elder and first speaker Anna Gibbs. “These are all our relatives, we share life, all life, animals and plants.”

The girls and boys also spent time apart for “gender talks.” Activities like lacrosse and language lessons also filled the days.

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Field Trips and Anokaajigan (Crafts)

Field trips involved plant identification for eating and medicine. Frances Miller said before the kids went off with younger teachers, “There are many natural medicines all around you, pay attention to this. Sweet grass, sage, cedar, and tobacco are used in our ceremonies. Before you take from Mother Earth, offer tobacco for thanks. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

During nature walks, the campers identified and discussed the uses of various trees, shrubs and other plants. Staff showed different kinds of berries, some good to eat some for medicine, some not good to eat.

When coming across joomanan (grapes), Ben Bonga instructed, “If you take, put tobacco down and give thanks.” The campers also saw ininaatig (sugar maple), which provides sugar and syrup, several types of mitigomizh (oak), which have edible acorns.

“From the ash we make lye for soap or for tanning hides. Rose hips are good for vitamin C,” Bonga told the kids. “Many of the berries are gone, look and see where makwa (bear) has been picking in the area.”

Spiritual Elder Anna Gibbs and teacher Zack Mitteness taught several children how to work with wiigwaas (birch bark). Many made small jiimaanan (canoes).

Michael Meuers

Gender talks with the boys during the Ojibwe Language and Culture Camp.

Abundance of Language

Ojibwemowin was heard and spoken throughout the three-day Gabeshiwin by elders, teachers, and encouragingly some youth.

Fluent speaking elders taught cultural values for youth to remember, the Ojibwe creation story, and the importance of gratitude among the lessons.

Among other revered practices, youth learned the practice of making tobacco offerings to the Creator for providing waawaashkeshina (deer) and to the deer for giving up its life. “This is practiced with all living things taken from Mother Earth,” Frances Miller reminded all.

The elders formed relationships with the young people as they taught them Ojibwemowin phrases, such as the often-heard ambe (let’s go), and gego (don’t), along with being taught native names for plants and animals.

“The camp turned shy young men and women campers into more self-confident youth, and with that self-assurance comes better behavior in school and at home,” Thomas observed.

“Wisdom is here,” Thomas said. “Each child has a gift, we provided an opportunity. We provided a place for them; this is where they are from. Our youth will pick it up; we just have to give them the opportunity. This has been nothing but learning, all will go away with something, all will go away as better people.”