Niwasa Kendaaswin Teg, a multi-service Indigenous organization in Hamilton, has launched an Anishinaabemowin language app to reconnect people with the language and improve access to learning.
Executive director Monique Lavallee said they created the free app to continue to “light that fire” community members have to learn Anishinaabemowin.
She said people have come to Niwasa saying that something was “missing,” but not knowing what it was — learning the language, Lavallee says, is “healing medicine.”
To learn a language … is to understand the language as being alive– Kelly Jonathan, cultural lead and knowledge keeper
While Niwasa offers language classes, Lavallee said they wanted to take it one step further by making an app for first-time learners.
“It’s our inherent right to be born into our language and unfortunately, because of our history, that hasn’t happened,” she said. “We want to make sure that Indigenous people have as much access to language [as possible].”
The app has over 500 words and phrases under 24 different categories — such as numbers, food and conversation — as well as games and quizzes to test people’s knowledge. It also allows users to record themselves and play the audio back.
Everyone pictured in the app is from the Niwasa community, including youth, parents, teachers and elders.
Kelly Jonathan, Niwasa’s cultural lead for the past 20 years and a knowledge keeper, said that there are only a couple of people who have enough fluency in the area to carry a conversation.
Jonathan, who teaches Anishinaabemowin, said that having this app means people can learn without him in the room. It also means he’ll have more people to talk to. Even in its month-long soft launch, Jonathan said, people were able to pick up on words they had just learned.
Language is ‘vital’
The significance of learning the language, he said, goes beyond being “important.”
“I think it’s more of a vital,” he said. “To learn a language…is to understand the language as being alive — like a living thing, like a being.”
Jonathan worked with designers and a former student on the app for over a year. He also sought help from a teacher of Anishinaabemowin at the university level to keep the dialect of central Ojibwe consistent throughout the app.
While there wasn’t space for everything to be included — like their “enthusiastic” word bank of around 1,600 words — the app also features a cultural notes section, with songs and videos.
Jonathan said including spirituality and storytelling helps learners to understand the language in a more “rounded way.”
Through his own experiences, he said, he’s learned from elders that learning is a journey that never ends, “where you really have to make it a part of who you are.”
The organization hopes it helps continue to build a community of learners and speakers.
The app was launched alongside artwork by Indigenous artist Jay Haven and youth from the Niwasa program, which will be a teaching tool for the community. Called “passing on knowledge,” the mural is painted on drums and depicts a teacher holding tools of Indigenous education with students gathered round.
Lavallee said the mural features pollinators — spirit helpers — which represent hard work, cooperation, playfulness, change and endurance. It also features berry bushes, gifts from the earth and the sun and moon, which represent balance between masculine and feminine in our life cycle.
The app is available on the App store, Google Play and Amazon.