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Dan Ninham
Special to ICT

PONEMAH, Minnesota — A sign on the outskirts of Obaashiing in the northernmost portions of Red Lake Nation states simply, “Home of the Ojibway language.”

At one time, Obaashiing had the largest number of first-language speakers of the Ojibwemowin in Minnesota. But their numbers have dwindled over the decades, and the language was at risk of dying with them, along with traditional knowledge about such things as making birch-bark canoes, crafting snowshoes, skinning rabbits and harvesting Indigenous foods such as wild rice, or manoomin.

Then the nonprofit Manidoo Ogitigaan, or Spirit’s Garden, stepped in a few years ago with the motto, Geyaabi ginzhizhawizin_ji-minwaabanjigaadeg wenjibaayan (Keep working hard for your community), joining a growing effort to preserve the language and traditional knowledge.

The sign on Red Lake Nation near Obaashiing, Minnesota, is a reminder that the language should be preserved. (Photo courtesy of Susan Ninham)

Today, the organization is hosting cultural and language revitalization programs throughout Ojibwe Country, focused on providing training to keep traditions alive.The organization, based in Bemidji, was formed in 2018 by Kaitlyn Grenier, with the help of her fiancé, Zac Earley, White Earth Ojibwe, with inspiration from Grenier’s adoptive father, the late Larry Stillday, a citizen of the Red Lake Band in Obaashiing. 

“We strive for a healthy, vibrant community now and for generations to come,” said Grenier. “We envision a future where the Ojibwe language flourishes, and our world-view shapes our actions and influences the world around us in a positive way.

“We think seven generations ahead. Our actions now will leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren.”

Following the seasons

Manidoo Ogitigaan works its programming around the Anishinaabeg calendar, with each season bringing instruction on Indigenous foods such as medicine picking or berry camps, wild ricing, building canoes or making baskets, and other Anishinaabeg-specific art, language, and traditional ways.

The mission of Manidoo Ogitigaan is to “work with our communities to preserve and revitalize the spiritual knowledge, language, culture, and lifeways of the Anishinaabeg to improve our health and the health of our ecological family, " according to the website.

“It is only possible because of the community members who bring the work to life,” Grenier said. “The idea began as a garden, and the name, Manidoo Ogitigaan, given by Zac Earley, means the ‘Spirit’s Garden.’”

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Earley and Grenier are co-directors, and the organization is overseen by a five-person board: Judy Fairbanks, White Earth Ojibwe, who serves as board chair; Victoria Fineday, Red Lake Ojibwe, board secretary; Tara Mason, White Earth Ojibwe, treasurer; Robert Fineday, Red Lake Ojibwe; and Leslie Gibbs, Red Lake Ojibwe

Classes have included instruction on how to make a jingle dress, snowshoes or snowsnake; how to tap trees for maple sugar or harvest manoomin; how to skin and cook a rabbit or make a woven rabbit blanket; how to build a birch-bark canoe or make baskets; how to use traditional tools; and, of course, the language.

Elementary schoolchildren are frequent visitors to the Obaashiing sugar camp and other outdoor projects of the nonprofit Manidoo Ogitigaan. (Photo courtesy of Kaitlyn Grenier)

Manidoo Ogitigaan participated in the Great Lakes Indigenous Farming Conference held in Callaway, Minnesota, in early March. Elder Mary Moose, from the Fort Albany First Nation in Ontario, Canada, joined with craftsman and outdoorsman Nate Johnson to teach about the snowshoe hare, named for its large back feet that allow it to hop across the snow.

Moose is a first-language speaker in Ojibwe and Cree, and was raised in the bush. She lives in Hinkley, Minnesota, and is a sought-after knowledge carrier.

Johnson, who is non-Native, provides instruction on a number of skills, and was reached by ICT while brain-tanning hides with a Cree community in northern Saskatchewan.

“I'm a traditional craftsman, hunter and trapper who enjoys living with the land, participating in seasonal harvests, and making the things I need in life,” he said. “I'm of Scandinavian descent, but have worked with local Anishinaabe community groups on craft revitalization including birch-bark canoe building, snowshoe making, hide tanning, black ash and birch-bark basketry, and more.”

A birch-bark canoe is being built at Obaashiing University on the Red Lake Nation in Minnesota in this undated photo. (Photo courtesy of Kaitlyn Grenier)

He has provided demonstrations and instruction for Manidoo Ogitigaan on everything from making showshoes to weaving a traditional rabbit blanket, waabooyaan.

“I've made a waabooyaan out of 90 snowshoe hare skins and a child’s woven rabbit-skin parka out of 30 snowshoe hares,” he said.

The recent event included a demonstration on how to clean a rabbit, and the group shared rabbit soup.

Johnson said the classes were well-received.

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“Throughout the class there was a high level of community involvement, with kids, adults, and elders participating,” he said. “They really value developing relationships with the people in their community, and that's evident in their classes and in activities like their sugarbush, which requires the hard work of a lot of people.”

He said Manidoo Ogitigaan was key to bringing people together for the conference.

“Manidoo Ogitigaan is providing opportunities for people to work together and learn, which is tremendously important,” he said. “In a world increasingly driven by modern technology, we are often steered into hours spent sitting in front of electronic devices, disengaged from positive social interaction and activity that connects us to our landscape.”

He continued, “Opportunities to work with the land and to be creative with our hands, in the presence of friends, are crucial to our physical and emotional well-being. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort for a small organization to make this happen for their community, and their commitment to the cause is evident.”

Maggie Rousu, executive director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, was one of the organizers of the conference. She said it “would not have been the same without Manidoo Ogitigaan.”

“They brought with them traditional teachings about rabbits, why we have them and how we use them, along with other traditional arts and crafts,” she said. “Manidoo Ogitigaan has been a leader in restoring and reviving Anishinaabe culture and Anishinaabe traditional values.”

Language and more

The organization also offers help learning and maintaining the Ojibwe language.

Intermediate and advanced Ojibwe classes are offered every Thursday at 7 p.m. via Zoom with the groups facilitated by Marcus Ammesmaki, Fond du Lac Band, and Alex Decoteau, Turtle Mountain Chippewa. Guest speakers often join the discussion.

Ammesmaki said he was approached by Earley to launch the language program in 2020.

“Zac came with gifts and tobacco talking about starting a language initiative online to connect other speakers and learners of the language,” Ammesmaki said.

“Since then we've enjoyed spending time with speakers and learners of all levels creating and sharing curriculum in our working sessions online,” he said. “I'm grateful during these difficult times for organizations like Manidoo Ogitigaan for devoting resources to the creation of safe places to meet and share the language.”

Related stories:
Reviving the art of brain tanning hides
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'Lighting a fire' to preserve the language

And the network continues to grow.

Regional yoga leader Elizabeth Strong, Red Lake Band, said she works with Manidoo Ogitigaan to provide yoga instruction, including classes for youths and elders.

“The practices we’ve been able to provide are those that not only teach via the philosophy/practice of yoga, but also connect participants to our Anishinaabe language and teachings as well,” Strong said. “As we move, or perhaps engage in meditation, we do so often using our language and perhaps engaging in practices like our seven grandfather teachings.”

The programming is open to all who are interested in learning the cultural ways. Local and regional schools and treatment centers have often attended events.

Bob Smith, the cultural integration coordinator for the Northern Minnesota Juvenile Center in Bemidji, said Manidoo Ogitigaan provides immersive cultural education to the larger communities of Anishinaabe and non-Anishinaabe alike.

“The youth at the Northwestern Minnesota Juvenile Center have been privileged to access the knowledge and wisdom of Zac Earley and his associates in traditional practices of canoe construction and in the annual harvest of maple sugar with traditional teachings,” he said.

“Attending culture camps in White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake allowed the kids I work with the exposure to the diverse traditional knowledge shared by elders.”

Karen E. Goulet, Miikanan Gallery program director of the Watermark Center in Bemidji, which partners with Manidoo Ogitigaan, said the organization is focused on the community.

“Manidoo Ogitigaan has a clear vision for what they aspire to bring to their Ojibwe communities,” Goulet said. ““They are succeeding because of their commitment to sharing the cultural knowledge they have. With a far-reaching network of individuals and organizations that recognize their efforts, they work to perpetuate Ojibwe cultural knowledge and values.”

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