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Ojibwe language project feathers forward: Cass Lake-Bena teacher highlights bird names in new book

Anishinaabeg believe the goldfinch, or Ozaaweshiinh, is a spiritual keeper of the Ojibwe language. Charles Grolla's "Ezhi-wiinindwaa bineshiinhyag (Bird Names Project)" will share the story of the goldfinch and other Northland birds. (BEMIDJI PIONEER FILE PHOTO)1 / 2
Charles Grolla stands outside the American Indian Resource Center at BSU wearing a goldfinch bead work necklace one of his students designed. The goldfinch is one bird that will be featured in his book, "Ezhi-wiinindwaa bineshiinhyag." (CRYSTAL DEY | BEMIDJI PIONEER)2 / 2

CASS LAKE -- Be it a tweet, a chirp or a whistle, the birdsong has long been an instrumental piece in nature and part of Minnesota history.

Recently, an Ojibwe language revitalization effort has erupted in Indian Country to preserve the Anishinaabeg native tongue and traditions. One man is blending the past and present in a project that will educate and protect the language and culture.

Charles Grolla, a teacher at Cass Lake-Bena High School, has received a Minnesota Ornithologists' Union grant to produce a booklet of common birds in the state. Grolla's project will include Ojibwe names for birds as well as legends from community elders that describe the birds and cultural associations.

Grolla has dubbed his book "Ezhi-wiinindwaa bineshiinhyag"; translated into english: "The Bird Names Project."

"I think the information just isn't there. It's a crucial time now to keep the knowledge alive," Grolla said.

Grolla chose birds because while all other animals have names, birds each have their own Indian name and are not talked about as much. Grolla's focus is on the birds that are in the Northern Minnesota area. He explained that even some of the stories about birds origins and names are different in Wisconsin and Canada.

Grolla said he has always had an interest in birds and learned many of their names in the Ojibwe language from his adopted grandmother, Fanny Johns-Anderson.

"Some bird names I only knew their Ojibwe name until recently," Grolla said. "Some of the birds are really old. I don't think we'll ever know what their descriptive names translate into."

Grolla explained the Ojibwe language is very descriptive and bird names stem from either the sound they make, description of the bird or a cultural significance. Similarly, birds not native to the area are distinguished by their names.

"The pheasant, mayagi-bine, isn't an indigenous bird, its name means "strange partridge," Grolla said.

Perhaps one of the best known bird legends among Ojibwe youth is that of the goldfinch. Grolla said the goldfinch, Ozaaweshiinh in Ojibwe, is one of the spiritual keepers of the Ojibwe language. One of Grolla's students designed a beadwork necklace adorned with Ozaaweshiinh, which he wears on occasion.

"Ezhi-wiinindwaa bineshiinhyag" started with a list Grolla began with the intention to teach his students about birds so they could learn and share the knowledge.

"It's turning into more than I thought it would," Grolla said. "I think the further I get into it, the more questions I'll have."

This summer and autumn Grolla will be travelling around the region to talk to different elders on reservations including Bois Forte and Mille Lacs, not just those surrounding Bemidji (Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake). He intends to combine information he learns from elders, educational authorities and family with what he has already learned.

Declining traditions

Grolla considers himself "semi-fluent" in Ojibwe -- a language referred to as the most complex in the world.

"It's hard to find elders who are first speakers. Every season, it seems like we're losing more and more," Grolla said. "Some of them think it shouldn't be written, it should be passed down orally. A lot of teaching is still word of mouth, there are still stories and legends to be told."

Grolla said since the number of first language Ojibwe speakers is declining, his book will be a good starting point for people who don't know the language and want to learn.

"The language and culture was persecuted," Grolla said. "It became almost culturalized not to tell anybody."

Grolla said it is Ojibwe protocol to introduce yourself by your name, your clan (family) and where you are from. A lot of birds are unique to certain ceremonies and clans. Like the Ojibwe language, this is a tradition people who do not live on the reservation may not know.

Grolla provided the following example and translation:

Boozhoo gakina wiiya!

Charles Grolla nindizhinikaaz Ogimaagiizhig indigo nindoodem Adik Miskwaagamiiwizaaga'iganing nindoonjibaa miigwayak imaa Bikwaakwaang. Nindabendaagoz Asabikone-zaaga'iganing. Ajina ingiidazhitaa Asabikone-zaaga'iganing gii-shinawewiyaan. Ningikinoo'amaage Ojibwemowin imaa Gaamiskwaawaakokaag gikinoo'amaadiwigamigong.

Which in English, translates to:

My English name is Charles Grolla and my Indian name is Ogimaagiizhig which translates to "Boss of the Sky." I am of the Adik (Caribou) clan and I am from the Red Lake reservation. I was raised in the West End area of the Red Lake village. I am enrolled in the Bois Forte (Nett Lake) reservation where I also lived for a while when I was young. I teach Ojibwe language at Cass Lake-Bena High School.

Increasing resources

Grolla was a criminal justice major at BSU before he began his teaching career.

"One thing I noticed when I took the Ojibwe minor at BSU was there were no resources, there was not much literature on the language," Grolla said.

Grolla said he would like to pair "Ezhi-wiinindwaa bineshiinhyag" with the Anishinaabemowin, or Ojibwe language collection, on the BSU website --

He envisions his project as an addition to the increased resources now available at BSU.

Grolla said he is in the very beginning stage of his book creation. The number of pages in the booklet are not yet determined, nor is a confirmed partner for photo accompaniment, but he would like to have it completed by the end of the year and free to use online.

Grolla was awarded $4,383 of $11,192 distributed by the Savaloja Committee and MOU.

"The Savaloja Committee and MOU Board loved his project," said Steve Wilson, MOU Savaloja Committee Chair. "Using culture and language as a way to interest kids in birds and nature could prove much more effective than other approaches we've seen."

Wilson said Grolla was granted the largest single award given in 2014. Grolla's book was one of five projects to receive funding this year.

People who would like to contribute or donate to the project can contact Grolla at

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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