Ojibwe grandmother and grandson keeping the language alive

A family in Winnipeg is doing their part to ensure Anishinaabemowin remains alive and thriving for centuries to come.

Patricia Ningewance’s language classes begins with some introductions, she then moves onto some word games and ends with some back and forth conversation. No matter the level of the students’ laughter is commonly heard.

The 68 year old has spent her life passing on Anishinaabemowin or Ojibwe to a new generation.

“That’s identity for young people. That’s our link to our past, to our land that we really need to keep,” she said.

Ningewance, who’s traditional name is Waabi-bizhikiikwe or White Buffalo Woman in English, is from Lac Seul First Nation in Northwestern Ontario.

Ojibwe is her first language.

She learned English at the age of five.

The language instructor first began her career at the tender age of eight when she helped translate conversations in a local hospital. She would receive 10 cents per translation or the equivalent cost of a bag of chips at the time.

In the years following, Ningewance has taught at various universities across Manitoba and Ontario, as well as written 12 books on the Ojibwe language.

Her greatest achievement, however, is within the home.

Teaching the language runs in this family with Ningewance’s grandson following in her footsteps.

Aandeg Muldrew started learning Ojibwe during car rides with his gookum or grandmother.

“When we began driving around it started off very simply,” Ningewance recalled. “I would ask him, ‘what do you see over there,’ and then we wold be translating signs like Caribou Lake.”

This transitioned into Muldrew sitting in on his gookum’s university classes.

The 21-year-old is still in those classrooms but this time he’s leading the lessons.

“I was kind of realizing this is something I could do. Something I was given to pass on as well because I’ve been taught that but I didn’t really expect to do it so soon. I thought I would have time to prepare,” said Muldrew.

He started teaching at the University of Manitoba when he was 19-years-old making him the youngest sessional instructor.

“It was strange, you’re the teacher in the class and then you’re the same age as everyone else there as well,” Muldrew recalled about his first day teaching.

Since then, Muldrew has started teaching a course at the Wii Chiiwaakanak Learning Centre at the University of Winnipeg where he is also studying linguistics.

He said the key to a thriving language is practice.

“Really what we should be doing is speaking…and making sure students understand that and are able to speak as well,” said Muldrew.

Ojibwe is one of the most commonly spoken Indigenous languages across the country with approximately 20,000 people practicing it, according to Statistics Canada.

However, Ningewance said the landscape needs improving.

“It’s in pretty bad shape right now. A lot of young people are not speaking it, universities are not doing it, we’re not turning out fluent speakers neither at the elementary or high schools,” she said.

“We have to bring it out in the home.”

Her latest book, which will be released next year, will include lesson plans that can be used at home.

Earlier this year both Ningewance and Muldrew hosted a language camp at the site of the former Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. The site is now home to Algoma University.

For the Ojibwe woman it was a meaningful moment because it was the same place she was banned from speaking her language decades prior.

Ningewance has been at the forefront of watching the language evolve and while she is hopeful for the future she believes there needs to be more spaces or ‘language sanctuaries’ for people who want to learn the language.

This past year has been dubbed the International Year of Indigenous Languages by the United Nations.

There are approximately 60 Indigenous languages in Canada – with some close to extinction.

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