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New children’s exhibit explores Ojibwe language

Naomi LaFave curiously toddled over to the canoe on the floor and her mom, Amelia LeGarde, settled into the canoe with the 1-year-old. A photo of wild rice behind them, LeGarde rocked the canoe back and forth as if it had a river flowing beneath ...

Against a mural picture of wild rice, Amelia LeGarde puts a pfd on daughter Naomi LaFave, 1, in a canoe sitting in the Duluth Children’s Museum’s Manoomin exhibit on Thursday. The exhibit, officially opening today, is designed to teach visitors about Ojibwe culture and language (“manoomin” is Ojibwe for “wild rice”). The museum worked for months with people with expertise in Ojibwe language and traditions to design and build the exhibit. Steve Kuchera /
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Naomi LaFave curiously toddled over to the canoe on the floor and her mom, Amelia LeGarde, settled into the canoe with the 1-year-old. A photo of wild rice behind them, LeGarde rocked the canoe back and forth as if it had a river flowing beneath it instead of the floor of the Duluth Children’s Museum.
Next to the canoe, an interactive video inside a wiigiwaam was undergoing last-minute tweaks from museum staff before the exhibit officially opens today.
For the new exhibit Manoomin - “wild rice” in Ojibwe - museum Creative Director Rob Hadaway said staff wanted to focus on the Ojibwe language after speaking with Native Americans in the community about what they want to see in an exhibit. Museum staff hope that the exhibit will “plant the seed” of the Ojibwe language in children.
Hadaway recalled a sentiment he heard early on in creating the exhibit, “Every kid in the area can tell you what ‘hello’ in Spanish is, but very few can tell you what ‘hello’ is in Ojibwe, and Ojibwe is right here in our backyard. We’re hoping that ‘boozhoo’ is a common word now for kids in the area and that we can help spread that,” Hadaway said.
The Manoomin exhibit will have a free grand opening from 5-7 p.m. tonight at the Children’s Museum, 115 S. 29th Ave. W. Beginning next week, the exhibit will be open during regular museum hours. Museum President Cameron Bloom Kruger noted that if families can’t visit during regular hours, the museum also has free admission from 5-7 p.m. every first Friday of the month until summer.
In the exhibit, children can learn about the wild-rice harvest from an interactive video spoken in English and Ojibwe. Outside the wiigiwaam, museum visitors can view the beadwork of Sarah Howes, the museum’s fall artist-in-residency.
The Duluth Children’s Museum also created a free app called Mikan - “find it” in Ojibwe - that can be downloaded on a phone or played on tablets at the exhibit. The app features a matching game where children match objects related to the wild-rice harvest, and the objects’ names are spelled and pronounced in Ojibwe.
The exhibit is part of the museum’s new focus on creating exhibits that reflect the region. Manoomin is expected to be on display at the museum for at least four or five years and Hadaway said they’re hoping to travel with the exhibit to other areas.
“We’re trying to do everything we do with a regional focus,” Hadaway said. “We thought the Ojibwe culture is such an important part of our region that we want to do something to include that in the museum.”
To create the exhibit, museum staff began speaking with people in the community and on the Fond du Lac Reservation who are knowledgeable in Ojibwe language and traditions. They spent 18 months working on the exhibit because they wanted to ensure they got it right, Hadaway said.
The physical creation of the exhibit and app came about through partnerships and resources with programmers and gamers in the area, the Viz Lab at the University of Minnesota Duluth, local artists and the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.
Collaboration is how the Duluth Children’s Museum operates, Bloom Kruger said.
“We believe in partnership and we’re stronger when we work with other organizations and experts in the community. This is the product of that kind of collaboration.”
In creating an exhibit about the Ojibwe language, staff decided to convey the words to children through rice harvesting because of its historical importance in the area.
“Right out here, the St. Louis River estuary is one of the most important ricing areas in our region and with 200 years of an industry there, it completely got decimated and it’s just now being revived and brought back to life,” Bloom Kruger said.
The museum’s change to a regional focus came after a restructuring and change of museum management two years ago. That goal fit well with the new staff and they’ve heard good feedback on the new regional exhibits, which also includes a ore boat play area, Bloom Kruger said.
Overall, Bloom Kruger said they hope the new focus will cause the museum to become a draw for the region and showcase what the Northland has to offer.
“As a museum, we’ve really worked on how we become a real attraction and something that families want who come to our community. Right now, the Minnesota Children’s Museum is closed for reconstruction and we’re seeing a lot of families coming from the (Twin) Cities going, ‘We love our children’s museum down there, but it’s closed so we wanted to stop by and see what you’re doing here.’ We’re a quarter of the size of that museum, but they love it,” Bloom Kruger said.


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