Native Studies in Canada
Shirley Ida Williams is a Professor at Trent University in the Native Studies Department. Her work started here in 1986 when she was hired to develop and teach the Ojibway Language courses. When she first started, there was nothing to work from and therefore she started to do research on her language in order to have something to teach about her language to students.
Shirley comes from Wikwemikong First Nations Unceded Reserve on Manitoulin Island and is a fluent speaker of the Ojibway language, or Nishnaabemowin. She only learned the English Language when she was ten years when she went to Residential School, where she was forbidden to speak her language but never forgot it. She was told that if and when she got into the work force that she would never be hired if she used her language! At that time, she promised herself that she would always remember her language and prove “them” nuns wrong. She has done that to this day!!!
Since she started here at Trent, Shirley has been busy researching her language and recording it like her father used to tell her. Her father used to read the language that the missionaries wrote in hymn books. In fact, Shirley says that her father used to write in their language so that the nuns would not be able to understand him and in this way they were able to communicate with each other while she was away at Residential School.
In 1986, she began to research but her work was hampered by the scarcity of written material and by the lack of a standardized writing system. When the Native Language Instructor’s Program was started at Lakehead University, Shirley enrolled so that she could learn how to teach the language and to be able to write it, which was one of the most important things to her. She later became an instructor in this program, returning to Thunder Bay every July to teach a course on child development, and more recently has expanded into teaching Orthography and a methods course .
Shirley’s persistent interest in the language has also taken her to York University, where she completed, in 1996, her Master of Arts degree in Environmental Studies with an emphasis on the study of First Nations Language and Culture Manitoulin Dialect. The work she did for this degree was a continuation of her labor of love for Nishnaabemwin. Others share this enthusiasm for keeping the language alive and strong and have come together to form what is now known as the Nishinaabemowin Teg Incorporation. Shirley shares her time and plays an active role in Nishinaabemowin Teg by being a Board Member.
The Revitalization of the Nishnaabemwin Language Project was born from
Shirley’s ambition to expand her lexicon dictionary that resulted from
her research. The title she uses for this dictionary is: Gdi-nweninaa,
which translates as Aboriginal Language Big Book. This title was
given to Shirley to use for her book by one of her former students from
Lakehead University. Other Elders with whom Shirley has visited and
spoken to during her research and travels have also described her book
as a big book of words and named the book for that reason. Despite
some people’s objections, Shirley has stuck to the Elders’ idea of her
work and continues to call her book, “Nishinaabemowin Gchi-Mzinagan”, in
honour of the speakers who have kept one of the most important gifts given
by the Creator.
The Revitalization of the Nishnaabemwin Language (RNL) project consist of numerous sub-projects which expand on and extend the lexicon. The sub-projects include but are not limited to the ongoing development of the language textbooks, the creation of a language instruction program on CD, as well as interactive games and activities. All of these can accompany Gdi-nweninaa and textbooks and further enhance language learning.
Gdi-nweninaa is a collection of Ojibway and Odawa words organized and presented by themes. This type of organization was recommended to Shirley by Aboriginal language students and teachers who wanted an easier way to look up and learn the words in Nishnaabemwin. The themes are grouped into five chapters:
Chapter One gives the words of the names of birds, fish, insects, farm animals, forest animals, herbs, trees, plants and flowers.
Chapter Two consists of Time and includes measurement of time, division of days, sky world, months, commerce, counting and weather.
Chapter Three is Relatives, along with human anatomy, tasks, mental thoughts, illnesses, aboriginal regalia, contemporary clothing, and household belongings.
Chapter Four gives the various aspects of Community such as people, geography, holidays, chores, occupations and public buildings.
Chapter Five consists of a number of recreational activities such as games (toys and sports), camping, musical instruments (traditional and contemporary), travel and hobbies.
Chapter Six consists of kitchen utensils, foods, fruits, berries, vegetables, and meat.
The majority of the entries in the Nishinaabemowin Gchi-Mzinagan are nouns. Both animate and inanimate nouns are listed and each entry is extended to show the prefixes and suffixes that are used to create the possessive, plural, locative, pejorative, dubitive and preterit forms of the words. Some verbs are also listed.
The Revitalization of the Nishnaabemwin Language project is overseen by a reference committee which are known as consultants. This group is comprised of four people who can be identified as Aboriginal scholars, specialist, teachers and who are also fluent speakers. The members of the reference committee are Barbara Nolan, Isadore Toulouse, Rose Toulouse, and Mary Ann Corbiere. Reta Sands, previously a member of the reference committee now works as a consultant for the project.
The language texts are being revised so as to reflect changes to the new orthography which is known as the double vowel writing system. There are three textbooks being developed which are entitled: Eshkintam-Nishnaabemang Mzinagan (Introduction of Nishnaabemwin), Eko-niizhing Nishnaabemang Mzinagan (Intermediate Level) and Oshme geyaabe Wii-Nishnaabemang Mzinagan (More Advanced Level). These texts promote language learning through a progressive development of oral, reading, writing and listening skills. Although aimed at adult learners, they can also be used by teachers who wish to extract lessons from the text in order to to teach literacy language programs or for new orthography learners. The expected date of completion of the first textbook is the summer of 1999.
Language instruction Program on CD
The most innovative aspect of the RNL Project is the creation of the Language Instruction Program which will be available on compact disk. To enhance the learning of the Nishnaabemwin language, this program will incorporate some of the resources into interactive games based on the sports of hockey and baseball. Some of the suggestions used were taken from the questionaire which was developed for the Revitalization of the Nishnaabemwin Language Project. The focus group were Elders, Community Members, Nishnaabemwin Language Project Reference Committee, Students and those within the Native Studies Department at Trent University. It is hoped that these games will enable adults and children to connect their developing language skills with their (prior) physical knowledge of these two sports. Themes and units will be developed for each of the two sports, along with quizzes, conversations, drills and tic tac toe games.
Another innovative aspect of this compact disk will be its ability to perform spell check. This is the 1st spell check program to be developed for use in the Nishnaabemwin Language. The spell checker will be developed towards the end of the project.
Cross Word Puzzles
There will also be cross word puzzles and concentration games developed, which will reinforce the student’s acquisition of vocabulary in Nishnaabemwin. The students will also build their cognitive and analytic skills while searching for the words. Native language teachers will be able to use these games to create dynamic and healthy play activities.
In addition to this, there is a plan to develop a new set of colored flash cards. The flash cards can help the students to associate the Nishnaabe word with a picture of the item. From these cards we also hope to create short stories about the item so that students will acquire a linguistic and conversational context for the words in relation to the 1st text Eshkintam-Nishnaabemang Mzinagan.
Professor Shirley Williams has many plans for other language instructional materials, such as an audio tape to accompany textbooks, however these are only ideas to be realized in the future when she wins the next big 649 lottery!
What began four summers now with the first drafts of the language textbooks
has grown to become the Revitalization of the Nishnaabemwin Language Project.
There is much work still to be done, so Shirley expects to continue collecting
and writing down Nishnaabe words whenever she can. You might see
her one day at a pow-wow busy making notes for the latest edition of the