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Language camp keeps Ojibwe culture alive

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By Karen Hollish -- The Daily Press, Ashland

RED CLIFF, Wis. (AP) - To a virgin nose, the scents wafting up from buckets of brain juice are overpowering.

But to Kathleen ''Sis'' Wiggins of Odanah - who has long practiced tanning deer hides with deer brains - inhaling the pungent smell represents another step in strengthening her Ojibwe culture.

''The fact that you're keeping tradition alive, you can't beat that,''' said Wiggins, demonstrating her brain tanning technique at Red Cliff's Raspberry Bay Campground.

Wiggins joined others for the four-day Ojibwe Language Camp, an annual event sponsored by the Red Cliff Tribal Council and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Office of Multicultural Affairs. Campers traveled to Red Cliff from the St. Croix, Bad River and Lac Courte Oreilles reservations and beyond to pass along and absorb Ojibwe traditions.

Under Raspberry Bay's lakeside canopy of reaching red pines, far removed from many of modern technology's distractions, they organized loosely into small learning groups, splintered off for impromptu one-on-one lessons and reconvened as a whole to hear elders' stories.

Camp coordinator Andy Gokee, a former Red Cliff resident who now handles outreach for the UWSP Native American Center, explained why both Ojibwe language lessons and traditional hands-on skills are taught at the camp.

It just doesn't work to teach the Ojibwe language in a sterile classroom, he said.

''Language and the culture - you can't separate the two; you need both,'' Gokee said. ''One kind of interprets another; the language gives you insight into how the Indian mind perceives things.''

Today's dearth of Ojibwe language speakers can be traced to past U.S. government and church-related dictums, which forbade Native people to speak their languages, Gokee said. Locally, some elders who attended the St. Mary's Catholic School in Odanah - including a relative of Gokee - still remember losing their Native tongue as children, when the nuns ordered them to speak English only.

The need to revive and strengthen knowledge of the Ojibwe language is especially acute today, as the remaining fluent speakers are aging, Gokee said.

''It's a critical point in time now. ... The younger generation, are they going to be able to do it? Our ceremonies won't work in English,'' Gokee said. ''If we don't have our language, we don't have our ceremonies. And if we don't have them, we won't be Ojibwe anymore; we won't be Anishinabe anymore. We will lack that fundamental identity that defines us as Ojibwe.''

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While it's a critical point in time, it's also a time of opportunity for language growth, Gokee said. Some area children have been attending an Ojibwe language-immersion charter school in Hayward, and many advanced Ojibwe learners are reaching child-bearing age and will speak Ojibwe to their children soon, he said.

As for the camp, the complicated Ojibwe language ''can't be taught in a week,'' Gokee acknowledged - but a week is enough time to ignite an interest.

An interest appeared to spark for 9-year-old Pearl Crowe of Ashland. When first asked about her Ojibwe language ability, she sheepishly said she only knows ''boozhoo'' and ''migwetch'' - ''hello'' and ''thank you,'' respectively. But Crowe's eyes lit up when she described how her elders had been teaching the kid campers vocabulary through song.

''They were singing; they started you off with two songs, and if you could handle it, you go to three,'' she said.

The songs - which included an Ojibwe language version of ''Itsy Bitsy Spider'' and a ditty about numbers - also excited 11-year-old Angie Matrious, of Lake Lena, Minn.

She was honing her introductory speaking, if not spelling, abilities at the camp.

''Ashi beshig,'' she fired back, when asked her age.

But could she spell that?

''No!'' Matrious said just as quickly, though after prodding she gave it a good shot.

At a feast later that night, fluent Ojibwe speaker Brian Goodwin said Matrious' answer about her age was technically correct, but still at a ''baby talk'' level. A more experienced Ojibwe speaker, Goodwin said, would've likely answered ''beboonigizyaan ashi-beshig,'' a more thorough explanation which can be roughly translated to ''I am 11 winters old.''

Building up the tribe's number of functional Ojibwe speakers is a big undertaking, Gokee said, but he thinks activities like the camp in Red Cliff are helping.

Kids ran from campsite to campsite, digging up holes in the dirt, pushing each other on a tree swing and watching the adults work on moccasins and make dinner. During the course of the week, Gokee will sometimes overhear the little ones speaking to each other in limited doses of Ojibwe - a heartening sign, he said.

''You see flashes of it; not as consistently as you hope, but you see flashes of it,'' he said. ''That's a good sign.''