The United States federal government began sending American Indian children to government-run schools in the late 1870s as part of an effort to solve the “Indian problem.” The supposed purpose of the government schools was acculturation, but many schools actually emphasized manual training. As a result, rather than being returned home to their families and communities during the summer, most of the students were hired out to perform menial labor. The overall effect of these government-run boarding schools and similar intentioned missionary schools was to take away the culture, identity, and language of these Native youth. Forcing students to speak English, cutting their hair, and teaching them about European culture and history accomplished this.
During this time of the boarding and missionary schools, many families and communities did not have input as to which schools their children would attend. In fact, many of the schools were located far from the students’ reservation or tribal community of origin. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 ordered the boarding schools to be phased out, but many of these schools continued until 1960s and 1970s. While these schools no longer exist in the same form as they did, their impact can still be felt today. Many elders and some adults in Wisconsin’s American Indian nations and tribal communities attended either a boarding or mission school. Many of these American Indian nations and tribal communities continue to this day to work to try to reclaim and revitalize their language and culture to ensure that these traditions carry on in the future.
The winter stories of the Ojibwe are vital narratives that offer a historical and moral guide for understanding the environment and our people’s place within it. One of these stories tells of the first maple sugar gathering. A tree offered its life-force (sap) for use by the people to help keep them alive through a difficult winter when many were starving to death. This tree asked to be cared for in return and to be thanked properly for this gift. Each spring the students at Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School open the school sugar bush with a retelling of this story and an opening feast of thanks.
Waadookodaading, “a place where people help each other,” is part of an international movement that seeks to revitalize indigenous languages, many of which are in danger of never being spoken again. One way communities are attempting to revive these languages is through indigenous language medium classroom instruction. This means that the language of instruction in the school classroom is the relevant indigenous language, and is not English.
At Waadookodaading, preschool through third grade is taught all of their school lessons using the Ojibwe language. The approach replicates how many people learn a language: by hearing and speaking, and eventually through reading and writing. The students come from English speaking families and homes, so all of the students are bilingual, able to communicate in both English and Ojibwe. By the end of kindergarten, most students at Waadookodaading know two alphabets and writing systems.
Language alone does not convey or connect people to culture. It is a medium through which culture can be learned. Ojibwemowin, the Ojibwe language, is a language of action. In the Ojibwe worldview, there are two ways to learn, by observing and by doing. At Waadookodaading, the staff, students, and community have an opportunity to learn in this way. Sugar bush is an important part of our learning. When the school goes to sugar bush, older students who have gone to sugar bush since preschool are paired with new students. The new students watch what the older students are doing, and eventually are invited to assist with hauling wood, hauling sap, drilling trees, setting taps, and hauling food to camp. In the classroom, students observe staff boiling sap down into taffy, sugar, and candy. Someday students will be able to do the same for others, and will be able to explain what they are doing in the language of their ancestors, Ojibwemowin.
Sugar bush marks a sweet end to a long winter. It is a joyous time, as it begins with snow on the ground and ends with budding trees and glimpses of green. We remain thankful for the trees and their precious gift.