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Learning Ojibwemowin: Camp Teaches Language With Games, Activities

The Nagaajiwanaang Ojibwe Language Camp in Minnesota has grown to include 1,200 participants interested in learning the Native American language.

What began as a small community gathering to promote the power of the Ojibwe language in Minnesota blossomed this year into a celebration larger than its organizers ever imagined.

Nagaajiwanaang Ojibwe Language Camp in Sawyer started five years ago with about 190 people gathering for family activities and speaking Ojibwemowin. This year, that mid-June camp attracted more than 1,200 people over four days, and organizers are looking forward to increased numbers next year.

“It was just a happy time, many smiles, a lot of laughter,” said Jim Northup, Fond du Lac Ojibwe, who started the camp with his wife, Pat Northrup, and their friend Rick Gresczyk.

Ivy Vainio

Arne Vainio teaches the campers about how science relates to all of us and the world we live in.

The camp was a mix of Native and non-Native, including visitors from Germany and Norway. Some tribal members from Turtle Mountain Community College even came to get ideas for their own camp.

All are welcome, Jim said, and though the Ojibwe language skills ran from “some people who didn’t know one word” to fluent speakers, none felt uncomfortable. “We speak a lot of English. We’re going to the level that people speak. We’re not hoity-toity, ‘We know Ojibwe.’”

Ojibwe is mingled with English in the lodges where people learned how to make birchbark baskets, cedar flutes, drumsticks, dried meats, beaded work, moccasins and other crafts.

“In my waaginogaan,” Jim said, “we played cribbage in Ojibwe, just to teach the numbers.”

At the Kiwenz Campground, at least 50 teams competed in two canoe races—one with paddles and the other using the pole and knocker from wild ricing.

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One of many heats of the canoe race.

Although camp attendance nearly doubled from last year, Pat wasn’t worried about feeding everyone. “I figure the Creator never gives us more than we can handle.”

Participants brought something to share, such as fruit or coffee; local families and organizations sponsored meals. Fundraisers, including an art auction, contributed and the Fond du Lac Tribal Council supported the program with funding and workers. The tribe also built indoor toilets and showers at the site for the four-day event.

“I’d really take off my hat to this reservation,” Pat said. “They passed a resolution to make Ojibwe the first language and … they’re doing what they say they were going to do by preserving and supporting the language.”

Thanks to such support, everything is free—“Free camping, free learning, free food,” said Jim.

“The language is free,” Pat added, “that’s why the camp is free.”

That most everything flows smoothly may stem from its family-oriented theme, “Respect Everyone.”

“Our motto for the camp is always to respect each other and Mother Earth,” Jim said. And to respect language nuances. “In Ojibwe country, there’s a lot of dialects; because there are people coming from all over, we need to respect these dialects.”

At the camp, amid family merriment, the language is lauded and encouraged.

By the end of event, Jim said, “People go way beyond what we thought is possible; they’re saying sentences. We want to spark the interest.”

Ivy Vainio

Ted Atatise, fluent Ojibwemowin speaker from Lac La Croix First Nation Reserve, taught Ojibwemowin to a group of campers. The mornings were reserved for the instruction of the language so there were several of these stations around with learning happening.