North Star Journey

Artists craft new ways to teach Indigenous languages

Two people perform on a stage in costumes.
Creative directors and founders of Z Puppets, Chris Griffith and Shari Aronson, pose for portraits with Grandmother Turtle in their south Minneapolis studio Thursday, March 10, 2022. The two perform in “Say It! Sing It! Play It! in Cherokee”.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Neil McKay was 15 when he heard two men speaking in Dakota for the first time. His family was attending a relative’s wake, the men were standing at the door as McKay walked by.

“They were speaking this very, very beautiful and enchanting language.”

McKay, a tribal member from the Spirit Lake community in North Dakota, instructs students in the Dakota language at the University of Minnesota.

He remembers hearing his language the same year his interest in music suddenly sparked. He was at a friend’s home watching a video of Robert Smith from the Cure playing guitar. It looked like the guitar his father owned.

“My dad said my grandma could hear a song once, pick up a guitar and fingerpick it. And that's something that I wish I could do,” McKay said.

McKay became classically trained in guitar. He learned to meld his interest in the Dakota language and music over time. And he said his work as a musician has helped him to understand how he learns.

“The best way that I learned language is to visit in, listen,” McKay said. ”I use my ears a lot,” McKay said.

For decades, Indigenous language speakers have been part of a larger movement for cultural revitalization for tribal communities in Minnesota and across the U.S. As the movement grows so does the need to engage language learners in new ways.

'Grandmother gets stronger'

Chris Griffith and Shari Aronson are co-founders of Z Puppets Rosenschnoz, a puppet theater in Minneapolis. For the past four years, they have been performing “Say It! Sing It! Play It! In Cherokee.”

“We describe it as a musical adventure into the Cherokee language with a turtle and a rabbit, and Grandmother Turtle has slipped and turned upside down,” said Aronson, “and every time they say, or share, or sing a Cherokee sound or word, Grandmother gets stronger.”

Griffith said the same metaphor might apply to all endangered languages, “I broaden it out so that the idea of there's many different grandmothers out there, and there's many different endangered languages out there. And so when you see a turtle that's on its back, it needs some help to get it back on its feet.”

Though he has performed in puppet shows for more than two decades, Griffith hadn’t thought of himself as a musician until he picked up his ukulele and began making music for the play.

“Songs started falling out of me, almost literally falling out,” he said. “And I could put the concepts of the Cherokee language that I was learning into a song.”

“People will come up to us and say, thank you in Cherokee, wado, and people will sing the songs afterward. So it has that stickiness which is really important for revitalization,” Aronson added.

Teaching through illustration

Another artist and educator says his elders inspired his work. Wesley Ballinger has worked on two series of Ojibwe language textbooks. He describes drawing characters from Ojibwe stories in a room of Ojibwe speakers.

“They just started taking off and then creating their own stories. That moment of everyone coming together, master speakers, second language learners, artists. And it’s trying to create this beautiful thing, this very necessary thing, in this world of language revitalization,” Ballinger said.

Years ago, Ballinger was inspired by Steve Premo, a fellow artist, when he was taking his first Ojibwe language class in high school.

“And Steve had these dynamic ink drawings that coincided with Ojibwe phrases. It had a very much a comic book dynamic, like approach to the line weights, the confidence and just throwing down those lines,” he said.

Ballinger aims to inspire that same interest in young learners who read his books.

“I saw through the immersion movement, folks wanted to get rid of all English. So how do you convey a meaning …? You do it through imagery, you do it through form.”

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.
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