David Grooms and his older brother, Daniel, are National Park Service rangers who, in addition to their other ranger duties, teach a summertime campfire program on the Ojibwe language. The brothers, students at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, make it fun with a game they invented called "Ojibwe Jeopardy."
After some brief tutoring on Ojibwe pronunciation, the game proceeds like a regular round of Jeopardy with categories such as Lakes, Animals, the Islands, and so on. David and Daniel hand out English to Ojibwe dictionaries, and the teams of campers rush to ask the correct Jeopardy question using the Ojibwe word -- correctly pronounced. There are a few easy ones. Bear is "makwa." But most are more along the lines of the Ojibwe word for Stockton Island, which is "Gegawewamingo Miniss," which means Burnt Wood Island, the original Indian name for the island we call Stockton.
David and Daniel have only been speaking the tongue of their ancestors for two and a half years, even though they grew up on the Red Cliff Indian Reservation. That's because the language and culture of the Ojibwe people were the subject of brutal repression by the state and federal governments.
In an effort to assimilate Native Americans into white culture, previous generations of young Ojibwe were crammed into reservation schools where any conversations in Ojibwe or other demonstrations of their culture were punished severely.
One method of repression was the "belt line." Every student was given a belt and when one student would slip and speak his native language his classmates were forced to stand in a line and beat him as he walked past. Those who refused were subject to the same torture.
Efforts at assimilation applied to the way the Ojibwe thought about land too. The U.S. government enforced a policy of "apportionment" on tribal lands in which they forced each Ojibwe family to take personal title to a certain portion of the reservation, a concept foreign to the Ojibwe tradition.
And perhaps the most tragic effort to break the Ojibwe spirit was the "Wisconsin Death March." In 1842, the Ojibwe ceded the Apostle Islands to the federal government. In exchange, they received the right to continue to hunt, fish and gather on the ceded lands just as they had in the past, and every tribal member was to receive an annual annuity payment. These payments were usually a small amount of cash plus some goods. But the government decided what goods the Ojibwe needed. One year they passed out saddles, which was a problem since the Ojibwe had no horses.
A tribe was an economic boon to a community because the annuity payments flowed through the local economy, and because there were political patronage jobs to be had in the administration of the treaty.
In 1850, President Zachary Taylor decided to reward his political friends in Minnesota by giving them the Ojibwe. He ordered them to decamp from the Bayfield region to Minnesota. They refused to go. So, to lure them away he ordered that the 1850 annuity payments be made from Sandy Lake, Minnesota, meaning that virtually the entire tribe had to march hundreds of miles to receive what was owed them.
They arrived as ordered in October, except the Indian agent who was assigned to distribute the payments wasn't there. He arrived a month late and without the cash portion of the payments because Congress had not appropriated the money.
He had also made no arrangements for the tribe while they were waiting. One hundred and seventy tribal members died while waiting in appalling conditions. Then they had to march back to Bayfield through December storms. Two hundred and thirty more Ojibwe died on the trip home.
The Ojibwe eventually won the right to stay on their native lands around the Apostles, but later the State of Wisconsin refused to recognize the portions of the 1842 treaty that allowed the Ojibwe to hunt and fish in their traditional manner, an issue that wasn't resolved for another 130 years.
Small wonder then when the Apostle Islands National Lake Shore was created in 1970, the Ojibwe opted not to include their reservations in the park.
David Grooms says that Ojibwe is all but a dead language now, but he and his brother hope that by learning and speaking the language themselves and by spreading the seeds among their fellow rangers and the tourists who see their presentation, they can start to revive their native language and with it the culture of a people.
If words matter then an entire language matters tremendously. Keeping a language alive can mean keeping a culture and a collective memory vibrant as well. Despite the most devious efforts of our own government, this culture hangs on and thanks to the young Grooms brothers it may flourish yet again.