Anishinaabemowin is the language of the Ojibwe people, but many young Ojibwe people don’t know their language. Native teachers and students are learning through classes, camps, social media, podcasts and radio.
Erik Redix is an Ojibwe language teacher at Oshki Ogimaag, a charter school in Grand Portage.
He’s also the host of a new podcast called “Anishinaabe Bizindamoo Makak” which translated into English means “Anishinaabe Radio.” It features Ojibwe elders telling stories about their life and culture in English and Ojibwe.
This interview has been edited for style and clarity.
How did you become a teacher of Anishinaabemowin?
Right now there's quite a demand for Ojibwe language teachers. My degree actually is in history, but slowly throughout my career, I keep getting pulled into teaching Ojibwe, and I find it extremely rewarding. And I find teaching about American Indian history rewarding as well. But the classroom interaction — I really like it a lot, seeing students learning Ojibwe.
Myself, my own background. I'm currently a language learner. I'm not a first speaker by any means. In my own family, it wasn't something that was spoken.
My great-grandparents’ generation were the last speakers of the Ojibwe language in my family. So it's something that in my teen years and in my early 20s, I started becoming interested in and just slowly, throughout my career and life, just slowly been building upon.
Ojibwe is a hard language. How do you help your students learn?
It is a hard language, but I think the term I would use is “different.” It's just so different from English. So yeah, it can be challenging, you know, and the thing that I stress is — as an educator — it's really a verb-based language. At the ground level, we start with conversation and verbs. We start with the things people talk about. I really want students to be able to speak and really start those conversational skills.
We start with introductions. We talk about the weather. We talk about how’re you feeling, describing both beings and things, and we kind of just build it from there.
I’m curious about the podcast idea — it’s great. Where’d you get the spark to do it?
There's a couple things behind the radio show and the podcast. Previously on KUMD in Duluth I hosted a similar show. “Ojibwe Stories: Gaganoonididaa.” When I relocated up to Grand Portage, I wanted to keep that going. So after a couple year hiatus from doing something similar, we proposed it to the local radio station WTIP, and they were very happy about it.
One of the things that I really enjoy about it is in my teaching and in my writing and research, it really helps me bring everything together. I can talk to Ojibwe elders, Ojibwe first speakers, about different cultural topics that maybe students or other people are asking me about.
Then three great benefits: The big picture in Ojibwe country is it's yet more Ojibwe first speakers getting their voices heard, documenting that language. And broadly Toronto Ojibwe country, but then here locally. Grand Portage is part of what's called by linguists “the border lakes dialect,” and I really, you know, as we kind of progress, I'll probably have a few folks from outside the border lakes dialect, but at least initially, I really want to focus on that dialect and preserving that for the Grand Portage community so that the original dialect that was spoken here at Grand Portage was better preserved.
How do you approach elders and ask them to share their stories? Are they reticent? Are they excited? What do they think of this?
Well, we just started this summer. And we started off with a couple programs with Dr. Gordon Jourdain who works for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. I've had a long personal and professional relationship with him, so that was a good way to start.
Some of the other elders that we work with going forward are people I've had a little bit less personal and professional history with so, you know, it can be challenging at times.
I found that from the prior radio show — that somebody I don't know very well, there's definitely a learning curve. I think most Ojibwe speakers are very excited, like you mentioned, to have this opportunity to preserve the language, but there's also the issue of speaking to speaking over the radio, and sometimes there's a little bit of coaching, for lack of a better word, that goes with that.
Tell me a story that has really stuck with you in your work.
This goes back to the prior radio show on KUMD. I used it really recently in my teaching up here at Oshki Ogimaag. Dr. Jourdain and shared this story about snaring rabbits.
When he was a little kid, he was raised by his grandmother, and his grandmother had mentioned that if you think too much about your snare over the night and you think too much about, “Ooh, I really want to get a rabbit the next day,” that it'll actually — all that energy will start to actually cause the snare itself to move. And if it's a moonlit night, it'll flicker and the rabbits will see it, and they won't go in there.
And for whatever reason, that story has always stuck with me. It was something that I shared with our students really recently, last winter, and they really engaged with it really well. That’s a perfect example of what I mean as far as me personally and professionally, how the radio show kind of supplements my teaching, and I really hope that it has the same effect for other educators as well.
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.