Learning Indigenous language gives community a future


Advertise with us

Gii wiijiiye Anishinaabemowin Zoom akinoomaageng.

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe with this special offer:

All-Access Digital Subscription

$1.50 for 150 days*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles

*Pay $1.50 for the first 22 weeks of your subscription. After 22 weeks, price increases to the regular rate of $19.00 per month. GST will be added to each payment. Subscription can be cancelled after the first 22 weeks.


Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/07/2020 (877 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Gii wiijiiye Anishinaabemowin Zoom akinoomaageng.

Try it. Here’s how it’s pronounced: Gee Wee-Je-Ya Ah-Nish-Ah-Nah-Bay-Mow-In Zoom Ah-Ke-Noo-Mah-Gayng.

It’s how you say: “I attended on an Anishinaabe language Zoom class.”

Over the past four months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Indigenous people have turned to a task many want to do but few have time for: learning their traditional language.

The endangerment of Indigenous languages is well-documented. Due to residential schools and more than a century-and-a-half of policies that marginalize Indigenous cultures and refuse to recognize Indigenous languages officially, most are in a dire situation. Few young speakers remain; infrastructure to keep such languages going is lacking.

The value of Indigenous languages is also well-documented, as the oldest and richest on this continent. They describe, document, and demonstrate all of the history, ways of life, and stories of this place. (English, French, and other languages do some of this, too, but not to the degree of Indigenous languages.)

Indigenous languages describe our home, tell us how to live in the best way possible, and embed people in relationships with the land, water, and non-human beings in rich, sustainable, and positive ways. They were the methods in which life operated for thousands of years in Winnipec, Manitowapow, and Kanata — and will continue to be the best method to continue lives here.

Saving Indigenous languages is, therefore, a task for all of us.

Now, more than ever, Indigenous-language speakers are turning to the internet to teach, share, and tell stories.

Over the years, internet sites (such as Ojibwe People’s Dictionary) and smartphone apps have been developed (such as those from Binasii and Ogoki Learning Systems). However, the past few months have seen the emergence of more online language programming than one can keep track of.

On platforms such as Facebook Live, YouTube, and even TikTok, one can find grandmothers teaching how to bead in Cree or medicine leaders teaching how to pick bear root in Blackfoot.

My favourite is Online Anishinaabemowin, on the platform My Own Meeting. Offered by elders Isadore Toulouse, Pat Osawamick, Liz Osawamick and Shirley Williams, 10-minute intensive classes are offered daily. There are prayers offered in the language, games, skits, chat rooms, and exercise breaks, too.

“One of the things our elders have told us is when you are teaching the language or when you are learning the language, is to have fun and enjoy it,” Williams explains.

On some days during the pandemic, Online Anishinaabemowin classes attracted hundreds of students.

Did I mention all of these are free? And this is just one offering. There are many more.

The University of Winnipeg, for example, just performed a research project documenting communities and teachers offering Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwa) and Cree and found 20 new programs.

Most are designed to teach the basics: greetings, the weather, and feelings. Some however are focusing on pandemic-specific lessons, such as “be prepared,” and how to wash your hands.

That’s “ashowizon” (Ash-O-Wah-Zon) and “gii ziibiiginan jiin” (Gee Zee-Bee-Ga-Naan Jin), by the way.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned: the word for headache is “dekwewin” (Dah-Kway-Win), phlegm is “skwaajigewin” (Skah-Je-Ga-Win), and sore throat is “gaagiijigondaaginewin” (Gaa-Gee-Ja-Goon-Daa-Gi-Nay-Win).

Some classes offer advanced teachings in verb use and spiritual teachings, addressing the main challenge with offering online learning: fluency.

Online programming won’t likely lead to fluency — immersion programs do that. Still, this intersection of technology and Indigenous languages is a ray of hope for elders fighting to continue Indigenous language use and youth who often don’t have access.

It’s been proven learning an Indigenous language leads youth to a better sense of self-worth and identity. This, in turn, leads to a more positive outlook — which is essential to success. Success, of course, leads to productivity, both in Indigenous and Canadian realities.

Want to lower suicide rates? Increase graduation rates? Dissuade involvement in gangs or crime?

Language programming is where the solutions begin.

Online language programming is not the only solution. There is no point in developing a language course if people have nothing to eat, are fearful of the police, or don’t have a computer or internet access. These issues have to be addressed at the same time.

But while food, shelter and access give one the ability to live, learning an Indigenous language gives a reason to live to our community and others.

Gii daagshkitoon gwa. You can do it.


Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.


Updated on Saturday, July 4, 2020 12:22 PM CDT: This story has been updated to clarify the phonetic pronunciation of skwaajigewin.

Report Error Submit a Tip


Advertise With Us