Questions & Answers: Why This Indigenous Woman Teaches Anishinaabemowin Language To Ontario Students

Nikki Shawana says she feels responsible for teaching the next generation about Anishinaabemowin culture and language.

She is from the Odawa Nation, Eagle Clan and resides in Norfolk County. Over the next six months, Shawana will be part of a new Indigenous language program with the Waterloo Region District School Board teaching Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in the Waterloo region and beyond.

Classes take place every Saturday and are open to everyone from grades 1 to 12.

She joined CBC Kitchener-Waterloo’s The morning edition to explain why she wants to teach students about Anishinaabemowin culture and how to speak it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: Why are you interested in helping students learn the Anishinaabemowin language?

Well this is so important to me … and the reason I am so excited that the Waterloo Region District School Board is offering this program is because I know what it is like to grow up in southern Ontario and go to school here.

And when I went to school, there was no access to Anishinaabemowin programs anywhere. There was no chance or opportunity, really, for you to learn if you were in southern Ontario and not near an Anishinaabe community.

But there are a lot of people who would like to learn this language. The fact that it’s offered now and it’s virtual and open to such a wide range of people, I think it’s really important and it’s just great that now it’s available to people.

CBC KW: What does it mean to be part of a program that will give Indigenous students the opportunity to learn a language that, as you say, you didn’t have the chance to learn while growing up?

It means a lot. It is so important. I was looking at articles yesterday which show that when students see themselves in the classroom, when they see themselves in their school board, they do much better.

They feel a lot more comfortable and like I said when I was young I didn’t have those opportunities. I couldn’t see myself. I think it helps, the native students feel included and can see and feel really good.

I think it’s going to have a positive impact on everyone who joins the class to learn more about our language and the teachings that are in our language – because it’s not just words, it’s teachings. And it’s the way we see the world and the way we respect the environment around us.

CBC KW: Tell us what the students are going to learn.

The first class, we really focused on the sounds you have in Anishinaabemowin. We have checked the sound board and are learning to say all the sounds on that board.

Once you have learned all of the sounds in this table, you can pronounce any Anishinaabemowin word any word because they are all made up of these sounds. We really start at the beginning, really with the basics.

Hope this is encouraging for anyone considering taking the course – that we start with step one and work our way up from there.

CBC KW: You have followed your own journey in learning Anishinaabemowin. Tell us a bit about that.

I have always wanted to learn Anishinaabemowin. The language was quite strong in my family when I was growing up, but unfortunately I never learned the language. But I was still interested – and I could still hear my aunts and uncles and my father talking to each other in the language.

When I was young, I started reading dictionaries and books to start learning. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I always took a book and read it, so I learned a lot of vocabulary and learned a lot of words.

Now that I’m an adult, I’m working to put these words together, form sentences and conjugate them. I think there is a really interesting prospect as a second language learner, someone who is already thinking in English and now trying to convert it to Anishinaabemowin.

CBC KW: You have been teaching people about Anishinaabemowin culture and language for quite some time. For you, Nikki, what do you get out of it?

I feel good, proud and helping as a young Anishinaabe or someone who knows the language a bit. I’m not a master in any sense of the word, or wouldn’t say I’m fluent, but I do feel responsible for being able to share what I know to help people start their language learning journey.

There is pressure because our language teachers are aging and dying, so who will be there to continue after?

And how are we going to get people to learn so that they are interested, so that we still have language teachers in the future and that we still have our language in the future? It means the world.

Morning Edition – KW6:17Why this Indigenous woman teaches the Anishinaabemowin language to students in Waterloo region and beyond

Nikki Shawana is part of a new language program offered every Saturday by the Waterloo Region District School Board that will teach Indigenous and non-Indigenous students more about the Anishinaabemowin language and culture. She told The Morning Edition why she feels responsible for teaching the next generation. 6:17

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