“She told us awful things happened. They weren’t allowed to speak their language, about their culture, their families or anything native, or they’d be punished,” says Valliere, Language & Cultural Teacher for the Tribal Ojibwe Language Program. “It was the government’s way of assimilating Native Americans. They thought they were doing us a favor.”
Instead, generations grew up stripped of their cultural identity, feeling isolated, fearful and unmoored. Pulled from their homes, they had no parenting models to follow for their own children—the only framework involved harsh punishments doled out by their non-native teachers.
Though the Waaswaaganing Anishinaabeg understand that language alone will not be the salve for their health challenges, returning it to its proper place as well as embracing other native teachings are seen as essential ingredients of a healthy foundation. For instance, the tribe’s centuries-old native teachings—humility, honesty, love, respect, bravery, wisdom and truth—demand a respect for nature and encourage a connection to the Great Spirit.
“The seven teachings help you function in the world, as a native and a non-native citizen,” says Brian Jackson, an adviser to the Cultural Connections program. “It’s about being a person. It’s about building a citizen.”
A Tradition Steeped in Health
This “building” takes place in classrooms, but also amid the forests and lakes of the reservation.
“Honor your older brothers,” Valliere tells a group of eighth-graders who are about to take canoes out into an area lake to harvest rice. The plants and animals were the Great Spirit’s first creations, he tells the students. Humans came later.
Before the harvesting begins, Valliere recites a traditional prayer in his native tongue, then sprinkles some tobacco into the water. It’s an offering—a thank you—to the Great Spirit. The teens follow his example, taking a pinch and letting the tobacco grounds flutter into the lake and across the forest floor.
Let loose on the water, the students spend the next several hours using ricing sticks to detach the grains from the plants, collecting the bounty into their canoes. From the shore, a teacher can hear the students’ laughter echoing across the water.
“Listen to that,” she says. “This is what they need.”
Handeland says traditional tasks such as the rice harvest serve as a sort of healing force, bringing social cohesion. After all, this is something that had been done by ancestors hundreds of years ago.
“Working as a team strengthens the families,” she says. “When you think about it, that’s the epitome of healthy.”