BEMIDJI -- "In high school, I would skip class all the time and go play guitar out in the park. I wanted to be a rock and roll star."
Instead, Dr. Giniwgiizhig, an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation, went on to attain two bachelor's degrees, a master's degree and a doctorate in education. Today, he's the assistant professor of Ojibwe language at BSU.
Although he teaches beginning, intermediate, and advanced language classes, Giniwgiizhig did not grow up speaking Ojibwe. He was first introduced to it at a summer camp during high school, and took his first class while studying at the University of Minnesota.
"It was fun to hang out with the Ojibwe professors, because the campus was huge and we were in a sea of non-Indian faces," he says.
The more he learned, the more convinced he was Ojibwe offered him something more compelling and important than dreams of rock stardom. After graduating with a degree in Indian studies, Giniwgiizhig took a job in a school district that taught Ojibwe. "The lack of materials inspired me to go back to school," he says. "I liked the language. I wanted to learn more."
He enrolled at Bemidji State to continue his studies, and returned to accept an assistant professorship after receiving his doctorate. He now actively works to preserve and revitalize the Ojibwe language.
In the 1987 Guinness Book of World Records, Ojibwe is listed as the world's most complex language. Giniwgiizhig says this is because it's a polysynthetic language.
"Poly meaning many. Synthetic meaning you can take it apart and construct them," he says. "You have morphemes, which are the smallest unit of meaning. In one word there can be many, many morphemes that would construct a new word. So it's almost like discovery, treasure hunting; you're looking at the language and thinking 'Ah, now I see what this word means. And now I see what the last part of the word means; and I see how you can recombine them and come up with new words.'"
As Giniwgiizhig learned more, he began to see how language is intimately connected to one's culture. "The elders always tell us: the language and the culture is No. 1. If we don't have it, we won't be Indians anymore. We'll just be descendants of Indians," he says. "The cultural activities are tied to the language. If we lose our language, we are going to lose our cultural activities. We are going to lose our ceremonies that are only done in the language. If we don't have the language, we will lose our worldview and we will lose our culture."
Giniwgiizhig shares their belief. As his proficiency increased, he could understand more of what was being said during ceremonies. "They're talking about our cosmology and how the world is structured in our way of doing things that's different than the western way of looking at things. And now the whole way of looking at the world is starting to change from a western perspective to an indigenous perspective -- and that's all in the language," he says.
He gives an example: "In the Ojibwe language, just about all creation is animate. Trees are animate. Rocks are animate. While an English speaker might refer to a rock as 'it,' we would look at the rock as him or her. Grandmother or grandfather. We call them that. They have been here for millions of years and they have a spiritual being. So instead of saying 'Do you see that rock?' You would say, 'Do you see her, that rock?'"
Still, he recognizes that saving the Ojibwe language is full of challenges, many set in place generations ago. "The United States' policy was to 'Americanize' the Indians," he says. To do this, the government first outlawed native religious practices and ceremonies, suspending the protection of the First Amendment for native people. In fact, native religious ceremonies remained illegal in the United States until 1978. Next, boarding schools were established for the children. "The military went to all the Indian houses, and they took all the kids and marched them 200 miles away from their home, so they couldn't run away. They kept them there, 12 years or so, away from family." During this time, youth were often beaten for speaking the Ojibwe language. "They brainwashed them every day that Indian is bad and Western is good. After 12 years of this, you start to believe that."
The effects of these events continue to impact Native people to this day. "We're still healing from the boarding school era," Giniwgiizhig says. "The language was effectively lost. Today, it is almost all the way lost. But it is still hanging on by a thread." Those who had been at boarding schools in their youth would often refuse to speak Ojibwe to their children and grandchildren out of fear. Giniwgiizhig saw this in his own family. "My grandmother and grandfather would not speak the language to my mother because they had been hurt, and they did not want her to feel that hurt," he says. Because of this, his mother never learned the language and was, therefore, unable to pass it along to him.
Today, Giniwgiizhig says, Ojibwe continues to be suppressed. "Now you don't have to send your kids to the boarding schools. You just have to send your kids to school and they're basically doing the same thing: teaching everything in English from a Protestant male perspective." He sees this as a major problem. "Youth need to learn their language and their culture so they can be grounded and successful." He is emphatic that preservation of the Ojibwe language must become the top priority.
Yet, despite the challenges, Giniwgiizhig believes "we are in a really exciting time of language revitalization. I'm one of the many, many, many leaders. There is a groundswell that is happening." For his part, Giniwgiizhig is working with Anton Treuer, executive director of the American Indian Resource Center, on designing a digital Ojibwe curriculum that anyone can access on the web. "We're going to be setting a standard for language learning and delivery," he says.
He believes that positive transformation is occurring as more and more people learn the language. "We're starting to rediscover indigenous values, and then we have those 'ah-ha' moments of spirituality of love and respect and kindness to all of creation. So we start to feel this growth, spiritually, with the language." He feels that this growth has been visible in his own life. "How I look at the world is really changing. I'm concerned for Mother Earth. More so than I would have been in the past," he acknowledges. "My love for the ceremonies is maturing. My spiritual growth is maturing. Simple things like random acts of kindness cause me to break out into tears as a grown man.
"I look at the stars and the clouds, the water, more in terms of love than as a product. They're a part of me. I'm part of them. I'm tied to the creator. My life is fulfilled. I am the richest man in the world because I'm full of love, I'm full of ceremony, I'm full of spirit, and I'm full of family."
Brooke's tips for applying Giniwgiizhig's wisdom to your life:
• Pursue what "Sparks" your interest: According to Giniwgiizhig, as an undergraduate student, "I didn't have any aspirations or dreams." When he first started becoming interested in the Ojibwe language, he had no idea where it would lead him. He just followed his natural curiosity; when opportunities arose to learn more, he took them. When you feel instinctively drawn to something, trust that feeling and be willing to pursue it, even if you don't know where it may lead you.
• Do what you can: Despite the many challenges and roadblocks to revitalizing the Ojibwe language, Giniwgiizhig shows no sign of slowing down or giving up on his efforts. Instead, he focuses on what he can do, and then does just that. As a result, more and more people in our community are learning and sharing the language. No matter how big problems may be, if you want to see change, do what you personally can to help create it.
• Recognize that big change sometimes happens slowly: "I never put my nose to the grindstone," says Giniwgiizhig of learning Ojibwe. "I always just worked at it here and there and slowly picked it up." Even today, he doesn't consider himself to be a fluent speaker. Yet, today the skills he has learned enable him to make a big positive difference in the community. If you are struggling to do something difficult in your life, be patient and consistently keep taking small steps.
Brooke Wichmann of Bemidji is a certified life coach and has a master's degree in peace education. She owns Connectivity Coaching, and is co-director of Inner Compass Consulting. You can read more on her blog at livingonpurpose.areavoices.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Living on purpose" is a monthly feature about Bemidji area residents who actively seek to create meaningful and fulfilling lives. It is inspired by the belief that each person has valuable wisdom to contribute, and by sharing and learning from one another, we can improve the quality of our own lives and our community.