Stateside Podcast: Ojibwe.net: Revitalizing Anishinaabe language online
New and improving speakers of Anishinaabe language often begin with experience at home or with formal study. But a website co-created by a web designer and a poet/scholar is helping speakers develop their skills with a modern experience in mind, no matter what resources they might have in their community. Ojibwe.net is a wide-ranging home for traditional and modern use of the Anishinaabemowin language.
Stacie Sheldon is a Cheboygan native, an Ann Arbor resident, a user experience web designer, and Crane Clan Anishinaabe. Her name in Anishinaabemowin (also known as Ojibwe) is Chitwaadewegekwe, Honor Beat Woman.
But growing up, she didn’t have access to that language in her family and community.
“I only experienced the language through place names that were around me and in books,” she said. “So like [Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem] The Song of Hiawatha, for instance, was a place where I saw the language being used, but it felt like it was impossible to learn the language or to be part of it.”
Sheldon found an opportunity to learn in 2006 while taking evening classes at Eastern Michigan University, where Margaret Noodin was teaching literature.
“I found out that she was leading this [Anishinaabemowin] community language table in Ann Arbor, so we would meet every week to learn and share resources around the language.”
Noodin, a Professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, grew up in Minnesota with a love of language and writing, she said. But, despite often hearing elders in her community speaking Anishinaabemowin, she didn’t develop fluency as a child.
“We knew that it was beautiful and powerful, and it connected to another time and would serve everyone well going forward,” she said, “But it was very hard to learn how to speak it.”
Noodin came to understand the significance of language erasure as she grew older.
“I learned the languages that would have been spoken by people in our family and our region. And it became clear that we had an issue with loss,” she said. “In particular, in my family, there's interest in both Ojibwe and Irish, and these are languages that colonial forces have actually erased, and people have been working to restore fluency in these languages.”
As Noodin and Sheldon worked to deepen their own knowledge of Anishinaabemowin and exchange knowledge and resources with others, they found themselves “driving around to all sorts of different places in Michigan and attending different events and sharing files back and forth and then wanting to share files with other people as well,” said Sheldon.
The desire for a good file sharing system led to the creation of ojibwe.net, a collaboration rooted in Noodin’s expertise in language and teaching, Sheldon’s technical knowhow, and their shared commitment to language advocacy.
Over the years, ojibwe.net has grown and evolved. Anyone who wants to learn Anishinaabemowin can find lessons ranging from beginner to advanced. There’s an archive of media for listening and watching, including original poems by Noodin and others, as well as stories for adults and children. The site also hosts a mixture of songs, ranging from traditional to translations of popular English-language lyrics, like John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The site also compiles other resources and hosts special projects like the community-sourced Inawe Mazina’igan Map Project, which visually represents the Anishinaabe diaspora in the present day.
Sheldon and Noodin encourage people of all backgrounds to take advantage of the resource–and they do. Elementary music teacher Kelsey Gamza, who is white and non-Native, has used it in her classes in Arlington, Virginia.
“Through the website, my students can learn that Indigenous languages are alive and well in North America,” she said. “We love learning the songs together and the recordings are especially helpful.”
But, Noodin and Sheldon said, First Nations communities are their first audiences. And the website is a labor of love from many community contributors as well as from Noodin, Sheldon, and Alphonse Pitawanakwat, a key contributor and language teacher whose first language is Anishinaabemowin.
“We created ojibwe.net to really knit that entire diaspora back together,” said Noodin.
“As Native people, we have suffered a systematic assault on our culture and our language and our being,” said Sheldon, noting severe challenges with poverty, education, incarceration, alcoholism and suicide across Native communities.
“I feel like if our young people could know more about their language and culture, that they will know how beautiful and important they are. And same with their elders,” Sheldon said. “So this website is something that we can do. It's something that we can offer. It's like a gift and a responsibility that we have for this language to survive.”
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Stateside’s theme music is by 14KT.
Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.