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Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

Are you knowledgeable about the Ojibwe language? Try these statements to see what you know:

Gaawiin aabawaamagasinoon.

Onzaamashkine.

Gii-kinwaakozi.

The answers are: It is not warm weather. He eats too much. He was tall.

The Ojibwemowin statements were presented at the finals of the Epiitendaagwak Ojibwemowin Quiz Bowl, part of the inaugural Anishinaabe Tribal College Student Competition, or Meshkwadoonigeng.

The event drew students from tribal colleges in Minnesota and Wisconsin to the Sanford Center in Bemidji, Minnesota, on April 21-22, for competitions in language, art, science and poetry.

Dawn Beaulieu and her twin sister, Fawn, were on the team from Red Lake Nation Tribal College that took home first place in the Quiz Bowl. But it was much more than a competition for the team members.

“It's very, very important to know the language,” Dawn Beaulieu told Indian Country Today in a text message. “I only see and hear a small amount of people who use the language. So, by me learning more of my language and using it in my daily life, [that] is keeping it alive.

“The knowledge bowl I participated in just lit a fire under me. It gave me more motivation to learn as much as I can.”

Fawn Beaulieu said the sisters and other team members, Mitch Johnson Jr. and Rebecca Pederson, helped each other prepare, using words from a study guide and quizzing themselves along the way.

“I studied so much I was dreaming our language,” Fawn Beaulieu said. “Knowing that our language was being lost, I felt a sense of identity loss and grief.”

The students’ enthusiasm for preserving the language was evident, said Helen Montgomery, Gaa’Oziskwaajimekaag Gabe-gikendaasoowigamig, interim president of Leech Lake Tribal College, which hosted the event.

“Language is a window into a culture and a people,” said Montgomery “It is the identity of a nation and holds the secrets to a people’s worldview, their relationship with nature, animals, each other and other cultures.

Montgomery identifies as an Indigenous person of the Volga Tatar people in Siberia and a direct descendant of the Levi Tribe of Israel people.

“The loss of a language, in essence, is a loss of a people’s identity and self-knowledge,” she said. “Language and the ability to name things is a gift for humans which is precious and must be preserved at all costs.”

Guidance from the elders

The words and phrases for the competition came from local elders and experts who have studied the language, said Zaagaatekwe Nyleta Belgarde, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, who works at Leech Lake Tribal College and served as coordinator of the bowl.

“Several years ago, we asked a couple of local elders and a language learner to create sentences for the quiz bowl,” said Belgarde. “We extrapolated the vocabulary from those sentences and sent those to each participating school for them to study.”

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The sentences were then separated into categories, depending on how skilled the teams were in the language. Division 1 was for students with no more than two semesters of Ojbwemowin, while Division 2 was for those with more knowledge.

“Participants were not given specific sentences to study,” Belgarde said. “They had to study the vocabulary and be prepared to use them in a variety of sentences.”

The finals for the Division 1 competition went down to the wire, with the Red Lake Nation Tribal College team trailing the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College 3-0 before coming from behind to win 5-3. The Leech Lake Tribal College Amik team came in third.

In Division II, the Lac Courte Oreille Ojibwe College team took first place, edging past Leech Lake Tribal College, which took second, and Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, in third.

The results are encouraging, Belgarde said.

“When I hear our language is being lost, that just makes me more determined to continue to teach and promote Ojibwemowin,” Belgarde said. “Our elders tell us our language is healing. We desperately need that medicine.”

It was also fun, she said.

“While the Quiz Bowl doesn't directly create speakers, it is a great way to have fun with our language, expose people to the beauty and fun of Ojibwemowin, and to inspire more people to learn. It also creates great relationships between our colleges and schools that are supportive and worthwhile in our quest to revitalize Ojibwemowin.”

Some words are harder to translate than others, however, Belgarde said. Meshkwadoonigeng means “an exchange.” Epiitendaagwak Ojibwemowin, she said, “is a little tougher to translate. Maybe ‘Ojibwemowin is highly valued’?”

Flash cards and determination

The Quiz Bowl students were provided with a study guide of words, and used repetition, drills and online meetings to become familiar with the words. And flash cards.

“Lots of flashcards,” said Mitch Johnson Jr., a member of the Red Lake Nation team. “Since the vocabulary list for the Quiz Bowl was quite extensive, my teammates and I divided up the vocabulary list to make the study load a little lighter for each person. Doing it this way really seemed to work well for our team … It was also a challenge because many of the words on the vocabulary list were new to me.”

Johnson, who is in his first year at Red Lake Nation College, said the loss of language has always been a concern for him, especially during contemporary times dealing with the pandemic.

“It's pretty heartbreaking to hear about how the Ojibwe language is being lost, but at the same time it's also really motivating,” Johnson said. “Knowing the language is struggling to stay alive makes me want to absorb and learn as much of our language as possible.”

Dawn Beaulieu, who set to graduate in 2023 at Red Lake Nation College, said the issue of language was personal for the twins – their grandfather was fluent but he didn’t teach it to his children, including their mother.

“My grandfather was severely bullied when he spoke Ojibwe,” she said. “He had blonde hair and blue eyes, so they'd tease him about being a White guy speaking the language. I did a project on him telling me a story in Ojibwe and I had to translate it. When I recorded him, he pointed the camera at the wall; I could only hear his voice. He made everyone leave the room until he was done.

"It's very sad to see how that affected him," she said. "If it was ok to speak his language, I'm sure he would've taught my mother.”

This artwork was among the entries by Red Lake Nation College student Rebecca Pederson that swept the art contest at the Anishinaabe Tribal College Student Competition, or Meshkwadoonigeng, held April 21-22, 2022, in Bemidji, Minnesota. Pederson, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska who is a descendant on her mother’s side from the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, won the Contemporary Art and People's Choice awards and was also on the first-place language team. (Photo by Ryan White, Leech Lake Tribal College Media)

Fawn Beaulieu, who is finishing her first year at Red Lake Nation Tribal College, said the realization that her Native language was vanishing spurred her to continue her studies, which began in high school.

“When I first learned that our language was dying, I enrolled my youngest son into the Waasabiik Immersion program and I enrolled into college so I could get back into studying our language,” she said.

“My future plans are to complete all offered classes through the RLNC and use my list of words that I have received from the language bowl in my daily life,” she said.

Lucas Bratvold, Gaagige Aanakwad, a Red Lake Nation College instructor in Anishnaabe Studies and Ojibwemowin, served as team coach. He is Red Lake Nation Ojibwe.

“The students really took it upon themselves to study, and coordinated study sessions and developed their study strategies and methods,” Bratvold said.

“Students put in a big effort to arrive and participate,” he said. “For some, this included attending to important personal matters about three hours away and being away from home for three days, studying during these serious personal matters, safely studying on the road, getting home the night before the event, and then getting to the out-of-town event the next morning. Some also took time off work and from their regular classroom sessions to attend.”

Rebecca Pederson, Nenokaasi, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska (Thunder Clan), is a descendant on her mother’s side from the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. She attends Red Lake Nation College and is set to graduate in the spring of 2023.

She was the fourth member of the winning Quiz Bowl team, but also swept the arts awards, taking first place in the Contemporary Art category and winning the People’s Choice Award. She, too, is encouraged by the renewed interest in language.

“Growing up in the ‘80s it wasn't often that I would hear Indigenous languages spoken,” she said. “I see many successes today with immersion schools and tribal colleges revitalizing Native languages … My goal is to continue to learn what I can by spending time working on it and using it every day.”

‘On a good path of revitalization’

Ray Allen Jr., Niigaanigaabaw, a member of the Division I team from Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College, said he had to adjust to hearing words in Ojibwe.

“Personally, I found being quizzed on only the Ojibwe sound to be the most challenging,” he said. “I’m such a visual learner that I had to write out what I was hearing for it to click.”

Allen, who is in his first year of obtaining a specialized certificate in the Ojibwe language, said it also made him realize how important it is to retain the language.

“When I hear that phrasing, I immediately think about all the barriers put up by institutions that stifle the growth of the language,” Allen said. “I think about that because I’ve been to multiple Western institutions before LCO college and not one of them prioritized funding and resources for the Ojibwe language, or even incentivized or awarded pre-college students to take the language.”

Allen also won second place in the science research proposal contest, for his poster on "Changing Climates and Perspectives on Northern Wisconsin Lakes."

Allen started learning Ojibwemowin in the fall of 2021, and his hope as a researcher is to integrate the language into the way he thinks about his research questions and how he goes about communicating what he learned.

“I’m a remote student,” he said. “It was so refreshing to be in a space where the language was thriving at every interaction and to be humbled by how much I don’t know about the language and look forward to learning more about it.”

Ziigwanikwe, Edwina Buffalo, is a member of the Red Cliff Band and is in her second semester of Ojibwemowin II at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College. She said she is encouraged by the interest.

“I rarely hear that our language is ‘being lost’ anymore,” said Edwina. “There are so many efforts to revitalize language that, although we are still in a state of emergency, we are on a good path of revitalization.”

She said she tries to speak Ojibwemowin in her home and to her children as much as possible, and was part of a team that developed an Ojibwemowin Teacher Training Program in her community.

“I was exposed to Ojibwe words at a young age but I was never able to conjugate sentences,” she said. “I am making a much better effort in future language development both personally and professionally … It has directly impacted my life and wellness in a positive way. It has mainly heightened my confidence as an Anishinaabekwe. When my confidence is high, I am a better mother, daughter, sister, and friend.”

Other competitions

In addition to language and art, the two-day event also featured contests for science and a poetry slam.

The science competition allowed students to enter posters in two categories, either explaining science research or science research proposals. The posters were displayed in a gallery, and students answered questions about their research or proposals.

“The most challenging part of the science competition was choosing winners,” said Brent Silvis, a non-Native who is on the natural science faculty at Leech Lake Tribal College. He organized the poster competition.

“We had great submissions from students who are doing incredibly cool research projects. Student scores in the science competition were very close and I think all the contests were decided by one point,” he said.

Mocha Reynolds, a student at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, won the science research poster contest at the inaugural Anishinaabe Tribal College Student Competition, or Meshkwadoonigeng, held April 21-22, 2022, in Bemidji, Minnesota. (Photo by Ryan White, Leech Lake Tribal College Media)

Mocha Reynolds, attending Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, won the science research contest for his poster on "Rusty Crayfish (Faxonius rusticus) Detection Using eDNA Methods in Wild Rice (Manoomin) Watersheds.” Second place was Roberto Pacheco, Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College, for "A Stream Invertebrate Community Index of Summit Creek," followed by Michelle Anderson, Leech Lake Tribal College, for "Effects of Sulfur on Manoomin."

Emily Lockling, a sophomore at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, won the science proposal poster contest at the inaugural Anishinaabe Tribal College Student Competition, or Meshkwadoonigeng, held April 21-22, 2022, in Bemidji, Minnesota. Lockling, a Fond du Lac Band descendant,  also placed third in the poetry contest. (Photo by Ryan White, Leech Lake Tribal College Media)

In the science research proposal category, the winner was Emily Lockling, for her poster, "Development of a Collector Application for Invasive Species Sampling." Second place was Ray Allen Jr., with no third-place winner.

Lockling, a Fond du Lac Band descendant, is a sophomore at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and a recent graduate of the Environmental Science Associate Degree program.

“The most challenging part of the event was remembering to hit each important concept of my project,” she said. “I would start to get carried away and excited about one part while presenting, and I would nearly forget to talk about other aspects. Thankfully, I didn’t get too carried away and I was able to talk about everything that was important to the understanding of my poster.”

She also placed third in the poetry contest. The winner of the poetry slam was Samantha Fairbanks, of Red Lake Nation College, with Ava Carpentier, also Red Lake Nation College, placing second.

New hope

Although discussions continue nationally and internationally about the loss of Indigenous languages, participants in the Meshkwadoonigeng left with renewed hope.

“Some of us who engage in Ojibwemowin have an understanding that it's not the language being lost, it's us who need to find our way back to using the language,” said Bratvold, the Red Lake Nation language team coach.

“Events like the Meshkwadoonigeng Conference and other quiz bowls are fun and exciting ways to generate interest in our language, culture, and academics. It's a great opportunity for students to learn new vocabulary, and to apply what they've been learning and to hear and speak Ojibwemowin,” he said.

“It's profoundly fulfilling to see their dedication to our language, culture, and academics,” he said.

Johnson, a student on the Red Lake team, said he sees renewed interest in learning the language.

“Hopefully, we can create a spark in other learners and encourage them to get more involved in the language,” he said. “My goal in the future is to become a language instructor for Ojibwe youth and help keep the language alive.”

Roberto Pacheco, a student at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College, took second place was for for the science research poster competition at the inaugural Anishinaabe Tribal College Student Competition, or Meshkwadoonigeng, held April 21-22, 2022, in Bemidji, Minnesota. (Photo by Dan Ninham for Indian Country Today)

Pacheco said he wants to create an Ojibwe Language Club at his college, where students can speak and learn Ojibwe.

“I worry every day about the survival of Ojibwe language,” Pacheco said. “I went to a big university before that only offered foreign languages. I enjoyed learning other languages, but I knew that I should be learning my own because it is dying ... I am very lucky to be able to go to a tribal college in my community and learn Ojibwemowin.”

LaVerne Martin, who was on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College team in the Quiz Bowl, said the conference was a good start.

“We have a beautiful language complete with subtle life lessons intertwined within our words,” she said. “Our language is at life-support stage. I grew up hearing the language everywhere. I studied Ojibwemowin on my own for a few years and when I got back to LCO I was excited to take the class; I thought it was going to be easy. It’s not easy, but don’t ever give up.”

Buffalo agreed.

“I am hoping this event will take on a life of its own and grow huge all over Indian Country, to revitalize all Indigenous languages across Turtle Island,” she said. “It’s just the beginning.”

And the winners are
Here are the winners of the 2022 Meshkwadoonigeng Tribal Student Competition.
Epiitendaagwak Ojibwemowin Quiz Bowl
Division I
1. Red Lake Nation College
2. Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College
3. Leech Lake Tribal College Amik
Division II
1. Lac Courte Oreille Ojibwe College
2. Leech Lake Tribal College
3. Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College
Faculty/Staff Division
1. Leech Lake Tribal College Amik 1
2. Leech Lake Tribal College Amik 2
3. Lac Courte Oreille Ojibwe College
Science Poster Exhibition
Science Research:
1. Mocha Reynolds, Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, "Rusty Crayfish (Faxonius rusticus) Detection Using eDNA Methods in Wild Rice (Manoomin) Watersheds"
2. Roberto Pacheco, Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College, "A Stream Invertebrate Community Index of Summit Creek"+
3. Michelle Anderson, Leech Lake Tribal College, "Effects of Sulfur on Manoomin"
Science Research Proposal:
1. Emily Lockling, Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, "Development of a Collector Application for Invasive Species Sampling"
2. Ray Allen, Jr., Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College, "Changing Climates and Perspectives on Northern Wisconsin Lakes"
Art Categories
Contemporary Art:
Rebecca Pederson, Red Lake Nation College
People’s Choice:
Rebecca Pederson, Red Lake Nation College
Poetry Slam
1. Samantha Fairbanks, Red Lake Nation College
2. Ava Carpentier, Red Lake Nation College
3. Emily Lockling, Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College

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6/6: Helen Montgomery's tribal affiliation was updated.