Ojibwe camp in Sawyer teaches more than words

This weekend’s Nagaajiwanaang language camp in Sawyer promises more than Ojibwe vocabulary words and spelling lessons. The four-day camp itself will be a lesson in all things Ojibwe, from attitude to native crafts to cooking Indian corn soup with ashes, plus canoe races and other contests that teach skills valued by the traditional Ojibwe culture.
It’s the third year for the camp, which organizers say fills a need in the American Indian community in northern Minnesota and beyond.
“There is a thirst for the language,” said Pat Northrup of Sawyer, one of the driving forces behind the camp. “I hear people in the community more in the last few years – since Fond du Lac made Ojibwe the official reservation language – talking about ‘what’s the word for this,’ learning the language. We’re providing resources.”
In addition to having a total of seven fluent speakers of Ojibwe, the camp will have language books for sale for the first time. There will be designated locations where only Ojibwe is spoken, and other activities – like Arne Vainio’s Mad Science presentations – at which an Ojibwe speaker will translate the English spoken by the presenter.
Having seven fluent speakers share their knowledge at one camp is quite an achievement. Because of efforts in the last century to “assimilate” American Indian children into mainstream American culture by sending them away from their families for schooling, to places that often punished anyone speaking Ojibwe with harsh physical punishment, many older tribal members know relatively little Ojibwe. However, efforts to teach the language to people of all ages are helping revive the language, which was almost lost.
There will be more than language experts there. Look for Ojibwe artists, including Northrup.
Campers can sign up to participate in different activities, including birch bark quill art, flute making, drumming and singing, drum stick making and moccasin making, among other things. The activities won’t be a break from the language learning, rather they’re part of the bigger picture.
“The theme of the camp is ‘Respect Each Other,’” Northrup explained. “We all know there are different dialects spoken on different reservations, but the meaning and the roots of the language are there. I think the same goes for the indigenous arts we have. They speak of who the people are. Some are very useful, like the winnowing baskets for ricing,” she added, explaining that the Ojibwe word for the baskets is ‘Nooshkachinaagan,’ which comes from the word for winnowing.
“The beauty of this language is that all the words you hear tell a story,” she added. “Because we first acknowledge the Creator for giving us the language, it is a spiritual language. It isn’t taken for granted.”
Last year the camp attracted about 400 campers. Northrup expects the same or more this year. In addition to people who come to camp and take part in the weekend, a number of students from area colleges and universities who have studied Ojibwe will be attending the camp, including some who studied at the language academy at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet. Paul DeMain of “News From Indian Country” is coming, so is a filmmaker who plans to do a documentary about the camp.
People don’t have to have American Indian ancestry to attend. In fact, Northrup said they get a good mix of people from all over at the camp, which is in its third year.
“I’m excited,” she said. “There will be fun activities, serious activities, lots of learning.
“Of course we’ll do some visiting,” she added, consulting with husband Jim on the likely way to spell ‘mawadishiweyawin,’ the Ojibwe word for visiting. “So bring your chair.”

If You Go
To get to the Kiwenz Campground, head west from Black Bear Casino 7.3 miles on Highway 210. Turn right on Mission Road, by the Sawyer Store. Follow signs on Mission Road to the campground, between three and four miles away. Turn right on Lake Road where it forms a T-intersection with Mission Road. Campground is a couple more bends down the road. Register at the gate. There is no charge, but BYOT (bring your own tent as well as a dish for eating and silverware. Food is provided. No alcohol or drugs are allowed. Call Pat or Jim Northrup at 218-878-0245 for more information. Camp starts Thursday morning and runs through Sunday, June 23-26. Everyone is welcome, regardless of cultural heritage.

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