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Revitalizing a Language and Healing a Community

Nimkee Kiyoshk dreams of helping revitalize the Ojibwe language. He grew up on and off a First Nations reserve in Canada, but rarely heard his people’s language.

His grandmother would occasionally use one or two words in Ojibwe, and he sometimes saw her laughing at elders’ comments in Ojibwe. But she had forgotten quite a bit of her native tongue after being forced to attend a school where she wasn’t allowed to speak it.

These types of schools once stretched across much of Canada in an effort to integrate First Nations children into Canadian society. Students were removed from their families, discouraged from practicing native traditions, and often given new names. Over the years, about 150,000 children were forced to attend these residential schools.

Nimkee wants to undo some of the damage done to native culture and traditions by these schools and other assimilation practices. He’s starting by building his fluency in Ojibwe. He came to the University of Minnesota for its leading program after completing a previous bachelor’s degree at a Canadian university.

“The program here is more intense,” Nimkee said. “They get into the grammatical structure of the language more. That’s what interests me.”

Nimkee also hopes to keep other Ojibwe people from forgetting their language. He’s helping with a culture camp in northern Ontario called Nimkii Aazhabikong, or Village of Thunder Mountain.

At the camp, elders teach the Ojibwe language along with traditional indigenous practices. Participants can learn to tan moose hides, build birchbark canoes, and make traditional art.

Nimkee believes that restoring the Ojibwe language can help revitalize Native communities’ culture and well-being.

“Language is important to me because it holds a world view of how fluent speakers and my ancestors see the world that we live in,” Nimkee said. “There were views forced upon my ancestors that treated indigenous peoples as inferior. Language can be medicine that heals.”

Date Published: April 2019

GPS