Tribe works to ensure language's future
Tribe works to ensure language's future
By Kristina Hughes News-Review Staff Writer
Story updated: Friday, March 23, 2007 11:03 AM EDT
HARBOR SPRINGS Howard Kimewon was punished for speaking Anishinaabemowin
when he was a child in school.
We had to speak English. You would get a strapping for speaking the
language, that was the golden rule, Kimewon said.
Nearly 50 years later, Kimewon remembers his grammar school experience on
Manitou Island. But today he feels welcome at Harbor Springs High School
where he informally teaches the Anishinaabemowin language during lunch
hours at the school.
I feel good about being here and bringing the language back to the kids. I
dont have paper, pencils or lesson plans, everything I say I speak from
the heart, he said.
Kimewon smiles as students count or understand a word or two during the
language lunch table.
Megan Keller, a Harbor Springs sophomore stumbles over the words, but she
is encouraged when she understands the meaning.
I want to learn how my ancestors talked, Keller said.
Keller will have that opportunity. The Harbor Springs High School and the
Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians are collaboratively working to
create a formal Anishinaabemowin language program at the school.
The class is part of a movement to revitalize the regions first spoken
language as its number of speakers dwindle. The effort is being made
through a multigenerational approach in area homes, schools, classes and at
The recent interest encourages fluent speakers like Ray Kiogima. Kiogima,
77, grew up in what he calls Indian town, a place where several Native
American families resided in Harbor Springs.
Growing up in the 1930s, the language was spoken in the homes, on the
streets and at gatherings.
This used to be known as the Odawa capital, he said.
Kiogima learned to fluently speak Anishinaabemowin from his grandmother
My grandmother couldnt hardly talk in English ... When I slipped in an
English word she reminded me if I lived with her I had to speak the Odawa
language, he said.
Nearly 60 years later, Kiogima is inspired to teach the language. Last
year, Kiogima finished his 20 year quest to co-author the book Odawa
Language and Legends.
When I heard the two words, dying language, it gave me the inspiration
to write the dictionary. I heard these words and it hit me like a light
bulb going off in my head.
Kiogima is currently writing a second book teaching the language. He hopes
these books will rekindle a spirit to learn.
The people have to have the desire to pass it on. We are counting on
them, Kiogima said.
The story of the language is tied with the history and cultural traditions
of the tribe. When the Europeans settled, the Anglo Saxon education system
forbid Native Americans to speak their native languages. In some cases
Native Americans were physically abused for speaking. This lead to a
breakdown in the language in some tribes, since parents wished to protect
their children from ridicule or punishment.
For years many tribe members attended boarding schools, like Holy Childhood
School in Harbor Springs, where the language was forbidden. The nuns
believed students must speak English and assimilate in order to succeed.
As more tribal members moved, or entered the job force and schools in the
predominant culture, English became the primary language for many families.
Some families passed on a few words or did not speak the language, while a
few speakers remained fluent.
In time as the fluent speakers began to walk on, the language was dying
with them. Some tribal members worried about the future of the language. In
the last few decades there was a resurgence movement focusing on the
cultural traditions and the language. Recently the education community has
begun to embrace the language in the classroom.
Helen Roy, is a first language speaker who kept her traditional language
when many speakers conversed in English. Roy, a linguist professor at
Michigan State University, fills a duty to teach.
Its important because when we speak we have our whole history of why the
words are spoken a certain way, Roy said. Its our cultural identity,
people talk about tradition and you hear that in the language.
But, there are still people who are reluctant to learn the language
because of past experiences ... But we should look at tomorrow and what we
can do to revitalize it.
Joe Kishego spoke fluent Anishinaabemowin. But that changed when he
The lessons, recitations and books were all in English.
We were asked to bring all our prayer books, hymnals in Odawa, these books
were burned, he said, with a sadness in his eyes, during an elders
But he didnt follow the rule. He hid his books, now worn with time.
For a while nobody spoke, Kishego, of Harbor Sprigs said. If we speak it
our language will carry on.
Kishego is proud to speak.
When Veronica Medicine, 69, listens she vividly remembers her cousin who
shared stories in an animated fashion.
When (fluent speakers) speak, its like music, Medicine said.
Growing up, no one taught her the language. As she learns the words,
Medicine hopes she will someday be able to pray in her native language.
In the past, she participated in Ray Kiogimas classes and courses with
Kenny Pheasant. She also participates in activities held by the Odawa
Institute, a nonprofit formed to preserve the language and culture. The
group continues to promote cultural events and a weekly language class.
In the last five years the tribe has made the language a priority, Carla
McFall, the tribes language program coordinator said. McFall met with
interested community members and tribal leaders, nearly five years ago to
establish a proposal for the new language program. The tribal council
approved the program housed in the Archives and Records Department in
The proposal included a narrative of the history of the language, the need
for fluent speakers and the importance of revitalizing the language. The
program was established in 2004.
The tribes Archives and Records Department received a $450,000 grant from
the Administration for Native Americans in 2006 for language revitalization
efforts. The funds were used to hire a curriculum specialist and are being
used to develop the high school course and create communitywide
Our primary goal is revitalization so it doesnt seem archaic, McFall
said. Were not doing it for a hobby or solely for fun. Were doing it to
teach a living, breathing language.
Passing it on
McFall passes on the words to her children and grandchildren.
Cody Bigjohn, 30, did not have much interest in the Anishinaabemowin
language as a teen. He remembers his mother Carla McFall who shared
greetings at family and tribal functions.
But when he had his own children, Aanzhenii (angel), 10 and Waabzii (Swan),
3, the desire to learn the language took hold. As he passed on his genes,
he hopes to pass the language on.
It gives me a sense of pride to hear them say words, Bigjohn said. When
I hear them I know our culture will stay alive.
As generations past spoke Anishinaabemowin in the home, some community
members are bringing the language back to the home.
When Kathy Shomin, decided to attend language classes it became a family
affair. On a recent evening, Shomin and her children Sampson Shomin,19,
Kyle Shomin, 17, and Mehmay Guaz (butterfly) Shomin, 14, play
Anishinaabemowin Yatzhee during a language pizza party.
Kathys children learned words from their grand parents. Kathy takes the
advice from an elder to heart, who shared, Language is your culture and
when your language is gone your culture is gone.
You need as much exposure as you can get. Its one thing to go to school
and learn the language, but to live it and speak it will save it, Kathy
Melissa Wiatrolik, 28, can remember growing up in a household where her
mother and grandmother often conversed in the native language.
Wiatrolik participates in the immersion class experience as a way to teach
Its important for our generation to carry it on to our children,
Wiatrolik said. ... Listening, it brings back memories and a feeling
inside that one can not explain.
Crystal Greensky, 24, grew up speaking and listening to the Ojibwe language
on the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indian Reservation near
Duluth, Minnesota. Greensky, whose father was an Ojibwe instructor hopes to
follow in his footsteps by becoming an Anishinaabemowin teacher.
You dont think about it as culture, Greensky said. Growing up, its the
way you lived.
After moving to the area she enrolled in immersion courses and a teaching
program at Bay Mills Community College. She currently works as a language
assistant with the tribe.
By teaching she hopes to raise awareness about the language.
There are so many people who dont know we have a language, Greensky
said. We need to create awareness and speakers.
Through her work she connects with the elders and fluent speakers, who hold
the key to the history of the language.
I cant even imagine what our community of elders went through, Greensky
said. Can you imagine for example, if you went to a Chinese speaking
school and could not speak your language? I feel so fortunate to be around
(the elders), to hear their stories.
Crystal and Harriet Kishigo Booth, recently conversed in Anishinaabemowin
during a game night.
Kishigo Booth, who lived through the times when the language was
stigmatized, is watching it emerge as a point of pride.
Looking at the young people, like Greensky, she is hopeful.
Im encouraged that we are going to keep the language, Kishigo Booth
said. They are going to be our source to pass it on.