Kateri Center hosts unique Ojibway language classes

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, April 5, 2015

As a child growing up in First Nations, Ontario, Canada, Georgina Roy learned the Ojibway language from her mother, an experience that delivered rich ties to her American Indian roots and deepened spiritual connections.

Now as the director of the Kateri Center, 3938 N. Leavitt St., the Chicago area’s lone spiritual center for the estimated 30,000 native people in Cook County, Roy is sharing the gift of the Ojibway language with others courtesy of a new literacy program that teaches the language in the context of native life.

The 12-week program titled Nin Kiidiwin, which translates to “I Speak/My Words,” began in January and will conclude in April. The language program, which is free of charge to students and meets once each week, is cosponsored by the Chicago Title VII American Indian Education Program and funded by a grant from the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago, a group that heeded Roy’s calls for native language instruction in the Chicago area.

“[Ojibway] is our first voice and a gift from the Creator, so we celebrate the language here at the Kateri Center and relish the opportunity to share knowledge that’s been passed down from generations,” Roy said.

The first-time class features 22 students ranging in age from five to 75, said Roy, whose sister, Dorothy, also a fluent Ojibway speaker, is one of the course’s four instructors.

Working with the Medicine Wheel as the instructional foundation, a traditional way of teaching and learning in Ojibway culture, students encounter a mix of traditional and modern instruction.

Anthony Roy, Georgina Roy’s nephew, oversees the digital aspects of the course, integrating music, YouTube videos, visual cues and PowerPoint presentations into the curriculum to deliver a contemporary learning environment that is simultaneously engaging and accessible, including a “Sesame Street”-like media in the Ojibway language.

“One of the amazing things we’re learning here is that our language can survive beyond tremendous downfall,” Anthony Roy said.

Anna Lees, who helped design the Nin Kiidiwin curriculum alongside Kateri Center leadership, said students are benefiting from an active, hands-on curriculum and by experiencing the language together.

“This is a shared way of understanding who we are,” Lees said. “It is not isolated vocabulary or literacy instruction, but language instruction based in the way of living our culture, daily life and values.”

In fact, Lees said language is embedded in native life.

“We cannot teach in isolation because everything is connected together,” Lees said, adding that students and teachers alike have “learned a lot about ourselves and where we come from.”

In January’s first meeting, class leaders showed a short video of an Ojibway boy who received a magical cape to fly between communities and spread his language. Each student then decorated his or her own cape as a symbol of the responsibility they now have to share their knowledge with others.

To that end, Roy said one of the course’s primary objectives is the development of a collection of Ojibway children’s books that will be available in the Kateri Center’s White Cedar Room Library.

Many Native American tribes have been working diligently to restore and preserve their languages, many of which were lost or diluted amid European conquest and settlement. Roy and many other native leaders in the Chicago area believe reviving indigenous languages can strengthen Chicago’s urban Indian community and deepen individual ties to native life.

Language, Roy said, particularly in Native American culture, is about more than verbal communication among people. Ojibway song and prayers, she said, can offer healing and help people express themselves in powerful, personal and deeply spiritual ways.

“But you need to hear the language and know the language to enjoy these rewards,” Roy said.

By sharing the language, she added, the Kateri Center helps to sustain American Indian culture and heritage studies, including lessons built around the Seven Grandfather Teachings, a collection of traditional native principles that align with treasured Catholic values. The Seven Grandfathers include respect, love, truth, bravery, wisdom, generosity and humility.

“These are important teachings to help people lead a good life,” said Roy, noting that native people have a long history with the Catholic faith.

Though Roy hopes Nin Kiidiwin will serve as a template for future American Indian language workshop courses in Chicago and elsewhere, she resists looking too far ahead and remains intently focused on the present and, specifically, bringing a successful conclusion to this inaugural Kateri Center program.

She said she’s proud to be sharing the Ojibway language with others and fulfilling her duty as a selfdescribed “elder” to share culture and values with others.

“These students will spread the word and the language, helping our heritage to come alive in new ways,” Roy said.


  • kateri center
  • ojibway
  • native american culture

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