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Tribe works to ensure language's future

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.petoskeynews.com/articles/2007/03/24/news/more_local/news02.txt Tribe works to ensure language s future By Kristina Hughes News-Review Staff Writer
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 25, 2007

      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
      don’t 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 region’s 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
      community events.

      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
      Mary Anne.

      “My grandmother couldn’t 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.

      “It’s important because when we speak we have our whole history of why the
      words are spoken a certain way,” Roy said. “It’s 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.”

      Anishinaabemowin first

      Joe Kishego spoke fluent Anishinaabemowin. But that changed when he
      attended school.

      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 elder’s

      But he didn’t 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, it’s 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 Kiogima’s 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 tribe’s 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
      Harbor Springs.

      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 tribe’s 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
      Anishinaabemowin programs.

      “Our primary goal is revitalization so it doesn’t seem archaic,” McFall
      said. “We’re not doing it for a hobby or solely for fun. We’re 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.

      Kathy’s 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. It’s 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
      her children.

      “It’s 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 don’t think about it as culture,” Greensky said. “Growing up, it’s 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 don’t 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 can’t 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.

      “I’m encouraged that we are going to keep the language,” Kishigo Booth
      said. “They are going to be our source to pass it on.”
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