As Arne Vainio – aka the “Mad Scientist” – conducted various experiments with (mostly) everyday items, Alphonse Pitawanakwat translated his English words into Ojibwe.
The 66-year-old fluent Ojibwe speaker was a first-time camper at the Nagaajiwanaang language camp in Sawyer, an event that started three years ago and has grown significantly each year.
“It looks like our biggest year yet,” said Jim Northrup, who organizes the camp with his wife, Pat, and other volunteers.
Jim Northrup, who hails from the same generation as the Canadian-born Pitawanakwat, has had to work at becoming a more fluent Ojibwe speaker. That’s because Jim was one of the many American Indian
children who were sent away to boarding schools at the insistence of the federal government, an attempt to force his generation to assimilate into the mainstream culture. Children at federal boarding schools were usually punished for speaking even a single word of Ojibwe.
Pitawanakwat escaped that fate.
“I grew up with it [the language],” he said, noting that he grew up on the Wikwemikong Reservation, an unceded reservation that was never signed over. “Where I come from, that’s all we did was speak the language. I needed to learn English at school.”
This weekend’s annual camp was an opportunity for people to immerse themselves in the Ojibwe culture, from speaking and hearing the language, to traditional crafts, like making birchbark baskets and moccasins, Ojibwe style with pleated toes.
It was the third year for the camp, which fills a need in the American Indian community in northern Minnesota and beyond.
“There is a thirst for the language,” said Pat, in an earlier Pine Journal interview.
Pitawanakwat was happy to do his part to help fill that need.
“I enjoy talking to different people who are trying to use the language,” he said. “There aren’t that many youngsters who speak the language, but I can hear they’re trying and they’re in this campground, so they’re showing interest. I like that.”