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Learning in Ojibwe

Water Table
Gordon Jourdain (right) and students play at the water table located in the Enweyang Ojibwe Language Nest.

Enweyang Ojibwe Language Nest

The Ojibwe language is on the verge of extinction. Those who speak the language are generally tribal Elders. Very few young people speak or even understand the language. “Many of the tribes in Minnesota have few first-nation native speakers left,” says Brian McInnes, program director of the Enweyang Ojibwe Language Nest. Located at the newly renovated UMD Chester Park building, the Enweyang Ojibwe Language Nest was created to reverse that trend and opened in September 2009.

McInnes, along with Gordon Jourdain, Ojibwe Language Nest head child care teacher, and others from UMD's College of Education and Human Services Professionals and Eni-gikendaasoyang, the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Language Revitalization, have worked to create a quality care and education immersion program. The comprehensive half-day morning program, which is licensed by the State Department of Human Services, provides children ages four and five with learning in all areas including core literacy, science, math, structured play, music and art - all of which is taught through the Ojibwe language.

In the Classroom
Gordon Jourdain is an Ojibwe master speaker who didn’t learn English until he went to school. “It is rare to find a master speaker who is also a licensed teacher,” McInnes says. “We are lucky to have him.” On most days, a UMD education student helps Jourdain in the classroom. A vital part of the program's mission is the mentoring of teacher candidates. There are ten children enrolled in the program.

Reading Nook
A cozy reading nook at the Ojibwe Language Nest..
Student George Peterson shows off his artwork.

The classroom is divided into areas for learning, play, and projects. Colorful artwork hangs on the walls. Some of the children pick up stuffed toys and state the Ojibwe names of the animals. An otter is a nigig. A loon is a maang.

Items around the room are labeled with their Ojibwe name to reinforce the written word as much as the spoken word. Colors, shapes, and numbers are all presented in Ojibwe. A child plays a drum and Jourdain leads the children in a song sung in Ojibwe. Field trips to the Tweed Museum of Art, Bagley Nature Center, and the UMD Library are not unusual.

Looking towards the Future

McInnes points out that the Ojibwe Language Nest is part of a growing movement to create “intentional language communities to teach each other and bring back the language.” He believes immersion is a powerful tool in language revitalization. “We are creating a community of learners. Our charge is to experience Ojibwe language on a day-to-day basis. We hope that the use of Ojibwe will continue on into the children’s daily lives,” he said.

McInnes, who is Ojibwe and speaks the language, believes that understanding and speaking one’s native language is vital to one’s identity and heritage. However, he notes that only about 60% of the children in the program are of American Indian heritage. Enweyang means 'our voice.' The word 'our' can have a broad definition and encompass many people from multiple backgrounds. McInnes is pleased that children who are not of American Indian descent are also learning the language, as he believes it will foster a respect for diversity. “One of our goals is intercultural competence.”

The children are blissfully unaware of these terms and statistics. They only know that they are having fun, learning Ojibwe together. Hopefully they will continue to learn the language through other programs. Perhaps one day they will teach the language to their children and the Ojibwe language will live on.

The Enweyang Ojibwe Language Nest has closed.


Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann,


UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto,, 218-726-8830

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