Grassroots effort keeping Indigenous language, culture alive

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Maureen Buchanan, Janza Giangrosso and Nescia Giangrosso, front, are all part of a local community working to promote, preserve and pass on Indigenous language, culture and teachings. (Meghan Balogh/The Whig-Standard) jpg, KI

An Elginburg girl and her award-winning poem are at the heart of a local movement to preserve and restore Indigenous language and culture.

Eight-year-old Nescia Giangrosso submitted her poem, The Language Nest, into the Indigenous Arts and Stories competition, a 15-year-running national competition open to Indigenous youth and facilitated by Historica Canada.

This year Nescia won the Emerging Artist ages six to nine category with her poem, which talks about learning the language of her Indigenous heritage, Anishinaabemowin, also known as Ojibwe. She mentions how her grandmother was not permitted to learn, and how difficult the language is, but how much fun she has at the Language Nest.

The Language Nest is a grassroots collection of volunteers who are focused on creating child-centred language learning opportunities. They meet every second Saturday to learn about Ojibwe and Mohawk together through song, games, stories and food.

Maureen Buchanan is one of the founding members of the community group, which came together in 2012 and is comprised of “Indigenous parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles.”

Nescia Giangrosso, 8, of Elginburg won the Emerging Artist category in the Indigenous Arts and Stories competition, a national contest for Indigenous youth. (Supplied Photo) jpg, KI

“Language is very central to identity, culture, well-being,” Buchanan said. “The reality is that here in Kingston our children in the school system cannot learn the language. In this city, the language of this land is not taught in our schools. I think it’s really important to understand that. We decided as a group of people to support each other.”

With multiple ancestral languages, Buchanan said she and the others decided the best way to begin was to learn each other’s drum songs.

“There has been drumming in our community for over 30 years,” she said. “We started that way, and people would find each other, then, people who had common ancestries or interest in common languages.”

Out of those explorations, strong Anishinaabemowin and Mohawk language groups emerged, consistent with the history of Indigenous peoples in the region.

“Recently there’s been a Cree family join us, so there is some Cree language learning, too,” Buchanan said.

Over the years, the Language Nest has purchased approximately $3,000 worth of language learning materials for the public library system in the region, as well as having gathered digital stories about community members’ relationships to language and identity.

The Language Nest biweekly sessions most often take place at the Kingston Community Health Centre, which also has an outdoor space the learners can use, and the Language Nest has partnered with Loving Spoonful to bring language into the kitchen.

“We’re always looking for ways to make language real in the lives of our families and children,” Buchanan said. “Some of that is about having fun. Some is about learning about culture, the cultural importance about language. We know that children who have a strong cultural identity have a better future. We all know this. So there’s been a fairly committed group of people moving this along.”

Often the group will move outside to a location on Elbow Lake, where they can connect with the land through the context of language.

“It’s about being able to create that space where individuals can engage meaningfully with culture and identity,” Buchanan explained. “We’re always recreating that space wherever we go as a language nest.”

Friday is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada. The United Nations has declared 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages, and that’s a big deal, Buchanan said. She wants people to think about where these ancient languages can thrive, when more than 60 per cent of status card-holding Indigenous people live off-reserve, with more who have no status cards but who can still trace Indigenous ancestry.

The last speaker of Ojibwe in Buchanan’s family was her grandmother. She decided to begin to learn the language at 55 years old, and is using as many resources online, on applications, through online university courses and in person as she can find to keep her language alive.

She sees the desire of others in the community to perpetuate their native tongue as a sign of resilience, in a community where this skill development isn’t readily available and is completely self-driven.

“This is a very unique situation where people in Kingston have come together to create the possibility of language,” she said. “This doesn’t happen every day. We’ve done this without an institution funding us. This is all self-created work that people have done, because so much of the culture and language is about being in a real relationship to identity. That becomes the unique utilization of language, the unique experience of being in language in various activities.”

The Language Nest used some of its money to support Indigenous students in two local schools to build hand drums and to learn language.

“That was all part of trying to help create safe cultural space with language and identity in schools,” Buchanan said.

One of those schools was Loughborough Public School in Sydenham, where Nescia’s mom, Janza Giangrosso, is heavily involved as a volunteer facilitating more Indigenous learning for students of all heritage.

“When I started to volunteer with the school, it was simply because there were so many things I would have loved included in education that weren’t happening,” Janza said.

She knew that other members of the community wanted Indigenous education to happen in the local school, and she was convinced of the need to begin at a grassroots level, rather than waiting for the education system to make greater strides.

One of her biggest projects was to facilitate the creation of an outdoor learning space that paid homage to traditional Indigenous teachings but also allowed for all types of learning in the outdoors for all students.

The school already had some landscaping rocks left over from other projects, and with the donation of a few more, Janza was able to assemble a circular installation on the green space behind the school, overlooking Sydenham Lake.

“I wanted this to honour the land that our school was built on. It was important that this space reflected that,” she said.

The circle features four painted rocks — yellow, red, black and white, pointing east, south, west and north — and an opening in the east side to mark the “eastern door,” a traditional teaching.

The space was officially opened with two ceremonies for students from the school to hear about the traditional teachings of the circle, the medicine wheel, the painted rocks and the eastern door, as well as seven stones in the very centre of the circle that demonstrated the seven “grandfather teachings” of love, truth, courage, wisdom, respect, humility and honesty. Each stone is written in English and Ojibwe.

Grades 3 through 6 students at Loughborough Public School in Sydenham attended a ceremony on Wednesday to open a new outdoor learning space at their school. The circular space integrates Indigenous teachings in a way that school parent, Janza Giangrosso, hopes will encourage the children to connect to the land, and for kids at the school with Indigenous ancestry to reconnect with their language and culture. (Meghan Balogh/The Whig-Standard) jpg, KI

“These are universal teachings across all children,” Janza said. “These are all things we can learn from, not just Indigenous students.”

The ceremonies were led by elder Georgina Riel of Kingston.

“It’s important to invite traditional knowledge holders and elders into our school, because they’re the keepers of the spirits of those stories,” Janza said. “They have a responsibility to share that with other Indigenous community members and youth that are longing to know those ancestral connections.”

The connection of Indigenous language and culture to the land is important to recognize, Janza said.

“My hope with creating this space was to allow children to be outside, to bring them back outside. Learning can happen outside. There’s nothing that says it has to happen in the walls of the school, and I thought if there was a physical space where teachers could bring students’ learning outside, it would be hopefully a natural connection, to weave connection to the land back into everything that they’re doing,” she said.

The outdoor installation was completed with help from volunteers within the community, including donations from Bangma Masonry, Kingston Monuments and discounts from Fast Line Stripping Systems. A Rotary Club of Kingston grant covered the cost of strawberries for the children at the ceremonies and gifts for the elders involved.

“This project happened because the community wanted it to happen and worked together to have it happen,” Janza said. “I’m hoping that it’s a space that helps grow Indigenous education, so teachers see this one as a place where kids can interact and grow a relationship with the land but also some of these teachings can be woven into the curriculum as more and more Indigenous education is rolled out across the province and across the country.”

With the outdoor space at Loughborough Public School, and the ongoing learning at the Language Nest, everything comes back to the importance of children, the next generation, in continuing Indigenous language and culture.

Buchanan’s decision to learn Ojibwe came about because of her grandson.

“It became really apparent to me that if I did not make the language happen in his life, he won’t hear it,” she said. “If we don’t decide to speak the language every day, it won’t happen. Any language learning that happens in my life today happens because I make the decision for it to happen.

“In the end, language needs to be spoken. There is no point talking about the need for language. What we need to do is speak the language.”