Fond du Lac campers immerse themselves in Ojibwe

SAWYER -- "Bezhig, niizh, niswi, niiwin, naanan," called out Gordon Jourdain, counting off the numbers one through five in Ojibwe to start a canoe race.

Cathleen Letson, 14, of Grand Marais (from left), Anna Cardon, 7, Madelyne Rendon, 8, both of Minneapolis, and Laura Craft, 16, of White Earth compete in a canow race during Fond du Lac's language immersion camp Tuesday. the race commands were in Ojibwe, and each team had to pick an Ojibwe name. (Steve Kuchera /

SAWYER -- "Bezhig, niizh, niswi, niiwin, naanan," called out Gordon Jourdain, counting off the numbers one through five in Ojibwe to start a canoe race.

With that, seven canoes shoved off into Big Lake on the Fond du Lac Reservation on Tuesday, as part of the reservation's first language immersion camp.

Organized by Ojibwe instructor Rick Gresczyk, who teaches in the Twin Cities, and Sawyer residents Jim and Pat Northrup, the tribal council-sponsored camp began Sunday, lasting from morning until night each day through today.

"The idea is to recreate an atmosphere where the first language was acquired," said Dan Jones, an instructor of Ojibwe at several Northland colleges. "It's to learn without crutches; English is seen as a crutch."

Each day, traditional activities such as birch bark


basket- and fry bread-making and shelter and canoe building, were used to teach about 80 campers the craft and the Ojibwe words used to describe them. Fluent speakers went from station to station, never lapsing into English. Children's songs, cribbage and other games were taught in Ojibwe, and three meals were served each day with a blessing in the language at the start of each.

"I believe in the language being out in the natural world," said Jourdain, a member of Ontario's Lac Lacroix First Nation, and a fluent speaker teaching at the camp. "I can feel the wind blowing in my face, kids talking in the background.

Other senses are heightened by the environment we are in. It's an excellent classroom."

Ivy Vainio, of Grand Portage descent, and her son, Jacob, were at the camp Tuesday. Both attended a language learning class at the reservation's Tribal Center during the school year and said they enjoy going to traditional Anishinaabe events.

"The last fluent speaker in my family was my great-grandmother, Frances Beargrease," Ivy Vainio said. "Every time we do something traditional, I think back to her. This was how she lived."

Pat Northrup wanted no time element to the camp, so activities, except for meals, were not scheduled. "It's natural life, instead," she said.

Jim Northrup is documenting the event so it can be used to help other reservations with their immersion camps.

Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin are seeing concentrated efforts to revitalize the Ojibwe language, said Jourdain, who will teach at the University of Minnesota Duluth in the fall.


"Every little bit is an acquisition," he said. "Every word you learn for the first time is a step in revitalizing the language."

Jourdain, 49, said he grew up in a community where 100 percent of its residents spoke Ojibwe fluently, and even the dogs understood only Ojibwe commands. Now, he said, despite an abundance of fluent speakers, young people aren't interested in learning.

"We can never go back to the place we grew up," he said. "For me, coming to a camp like this ... it's as close as I can get to the comfort I felt in the community I grew up in."

The camp was designed for families to participate together, with activities for adults and children, Gresczyk said, and campers were eager to learn.

"Anytime an elder dies, the language and a library of knowledge goes with them," he said. "It's nice to see young people become passionate and dedicate their lives to learning the language."

The Northrups hope to have the camp every year.

"If we can teach one of our people one or two words of Ojibwe, we have succeeded in planting that seed," Pat Northrup said. "People learn a few words ... they use the heck out of them. They'll get tired of using them and look for more words."

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