The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

    Keeping it in the culture

    Kevin Gisi

    When his mother took senior Paul Ganas to his very first powwow as a toddler, she said he immediately got involved, dancing and swaying to the beat of the drums.

    Now that he’s older, Ganas, 25, is involved with American Indian culture in a more intimate way – learning to speak Ojibwe and teaching it to others, in turn breathing new life into an endangered language.

    “Someone needs to step up and take care of it,” Ganas said. “(Otherwise) a whole culture, a way of life, is going to disappear. I think that’s something worth saving.”

    Ganas, along with three other UW-Eau Claire students and American Indian Studies Program Director Wendy Makoons Geniusz, spent the summer developing curriculum for a new American Indian Studies course.

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    The course would instruct students to teach Ojibwe, especially to young Ojibwe Indians who haven’t had much exposure to their language because of pressure to assimilate, Geniusz said.

    In July, the students spent four days at a language camp at the Red Cliff Reservation near the Apostle Islands. Then they used their experience to run their own three-day language camp in Iron River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, before returning to Eau Claire to build a course syllabus.

    Reservation immersion

    Ganas camped on the Red Cliff Reservation with sophomores Hickory Tate and Andy Tabbut and alumna Lyndsay Nelson. There, they spent time with tribal elders, trying out their Ojibwe language skills and absorbing the culture, Ganas said.

    Though the experience was at times overwhelming, all four said it was indescribably rewarding.

    “I’m not a tribal member and there’s a sign outside the campsite that says ‘you must be a tribal member to camp here,’ so that was intimidating at first,” Ganas said. “I didn’t know anybody except for the students who came with me, but they were very welcoming.”

    Because language and culture are so intertwined, Ganas and Tate said their time on the reservation was helpful in understanding the importance of preserving the language.

    “I think it’s important to keep that alive and possibly bring some of its elements into the university so everyone gets to learn about it,” Tate said.

    Eager to learn

    Cathy Ganas introduced her son Paul Ganas to American Indian culture at an early age, reading him traditional stories at bedtime, taking him to powwows, and buying him fry bread at the Indian Summer Festival in Milwaukee.

    “I’ve always been drawn to the culture because they’re so connected to the earth,” Cathy Ganas said. “It makes a lot of sense to me.”

    She said it was natural for her to share that with her children and that American Indian culture has “always been in the background” for their family.

    Nelson said she immediately bonded with Paul Ganas in their Ojibwe language classes together because she could tell he genuinely cared about the culture and wanted to learn with an open mind.

    “I appreciate that – that he’s willing to learn about a culture other than his own,” Nelson said.

    Though Ganas has no American Indian background in his own heritage, he began taking an American Indian Studies course almost every semester just for fun. Soon Ganas, who was initially undeclared, realized he had accidentally discovered his passion, and declared an American Indian Studies major.

    “I know that he’s enjoying learning again,” Cathy Ganas said. “I think he had a few semesters where he was just going through the paces, but I think this has just hooked him.”

    Cathy Ganas said she is excited to see that fire in her son and enjoys how he often talks to her about studying Ojibwe in graduate school and returning to the Red Cliff Reservation.

    Most recently, Paul Ganas helped circulate a petition to save the campus’ Council Oak Tree, where warring Ojibwe and Dakota tribes are believed to have met for peace councils.

    On their own

    Though the students’ own camp in Iron River was more language-based, Ganas said they tried to incorporate culture as much as possible, cooking traditional meals and making jewelry, cold and flu remedies and kinnikinnick, a herbal offering.

    “We wanted to use culture in whatever we were teaching,”

    Ganas said. “We used that as a guide to develop the curriculum.”

    They had planned to teach younger Ojibwe children, mostly kindergartners, and were surprised when a large group of teenage boys arrived at the camp.

    At first the students were unsure how the teens would react to the basic lessons they had prepared, but Ganas and Nelson said all of the children were eager to learn.

    “They were all very interested,” Nelson said. “We taught them some things and . by the end, I felt like we had made a real impact.”

    Though their tutees came and went, about half of the 50 or so stayed for the entire three days.

    The camp was a first introduction to the language for many of the Ojibwe children, Ganas said. The majority were from the Mole Lake reservation, near Crandon, Wis., and those who did know some Ojibwe could speak a few words, but not complete sentences, he said.

    In the past, European settlers made it illegal for tribes to teach their language and religion, and in some places it technically still is, Geniusz said.

    These language camps are a chance to “undo” that suppression and reestablish a commitment to the Ojibwe language and heritage, she said.

    “It honestly felt weird, also, being of European descent, fully, going and teaching kids a language that is theirs,” Tate said.

    Errol Geniusz, a graduate student studying history at UW-Eau Claire, said he was equally concerned about the children’s reaction to being taught by non-natives. He is also the chairman of the Chicaugon Chippewa tribe in Iron River.

    “We didn’t know if they’d be accepted by native people either,” Errol Geniusz said, “. but it worked out, they just kind of thought of them as older teenagers.”

    Errol Geniusz said speaking Ojibwe is sometimes stigmatized, especially by whites, which often discourages natives from learning. But he said he thought the Eau Claire students’ dedication really promoted the language and encouraged the children to pursue post-secondary education.

    “It makes them feel better about wanting to learn their language,” Errol Geniusz said.

    Tate and Tabbut were surprised how the kids attached to Ganas, because they said they and Nelson are more outgoing and friendly, while Ganas is more responsible and reserved.

    “All of the kids wanted to talk to him all the time,” Tabbut said.

    Wendy Makoons Geniusz said they received overwhelmingly positive responses about the camp on their feedback surveys.

    “We were actually hoping for some constructive criticism, I mean, we really wanted to improve it, but we only got positive stuff,” she said. “The only constructive criticism is that it wasn’t long enough.”

    Back in Eau Claire

    After returning to Eau Claire, the four students worked with Geniusz to develop a syllabus for the three-credit summer course, AIS 314/514: Ojibwe Language Camps.

    Their experience was a trial run for the course, which is now under review by the College of Arts and Science’s curriculum committee, Geniusz said. If approved, the course would be open to any student who has at least taken AIS 112 (the second semester of Ojibwe language).

    Students would spend the month of July at Red Cliff Reservation, running a language camp at Iron River and then spending an “intense couple of weeks” in Eau Claire to learn how to continue teaching Ojibwe, Geniusz said. Students can take the course multiple times for credit, she added.

    With less than one year left before graduation, Ganas is focusing on his capstone project, a book of Ojibwe language lessons.

    Ganas said he is working on developing lessons using more verbs, because many of the current teaching materials are simple word lists of nouns, but Ojibwe is verb-dominant.

    Otherwise, he is applying to graduate programs at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, the University of New Mexico and the University of California-Davis. He said he’d like to continue studying Ojibwe to build from his two years of language studies at Eau Claire.

    “That’s what’s really driven me in the past year – language learning.”

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