One day someone asked the centipede, “How do you coordinate all of those legs?”
So the centipede sat down to think about it and he was never able to walk again.
And so it can be, warns language instructor Dennis Jones, for those who think too hard about the 6,000 verb forms and the subtleties like a fourth-person pronoun (not found in English) that exist in Ojibwemowin, the Ojibwe language.
“People naturally assume it’s hard to learn, but it isn’t,” he said. “It’s real easy. (Those who grow up with it) never really consider the complexity of it, they just speak it.”
His theory—and his students from the University of Minnesota Department of American Indian Studies—will be put to the test at the 5th annual Ojibwe Language Quiz Bowl on April 16, hosted this year at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
It is expected that about nine teams and 150 students from mainly Minnesota and Wisconsin will attend the event, hosted this year by Augsburg Indigenous Student Association.
During the fast-paced, timed tournament, the four-member teams won’t have too much time to get stuck on pondering. They must quickly answer questions about Ojibwe language definitions, pronunciations and translations. “The content is all what we cover in our classes,” Jones said.
The language bowl, said this year’s organizer Jennifer Simon who directs American Indian Student Services at Augsburg, helps to give students a goal and a focus for their studies. “They want to learn their language…this brings some intentionality to it.”
The language bowl is one tool used to engage students who rarely get to speak Ojibwe outside the classroom. Language tables, regular weekly gatherings where Ojibwemowin is spoken, often over a meal, have also blossomed.
Jones, whose U of M team has won the bowl several times, agrees with Simon about its importance. “It’s a friendly competition, and it also develops a camaraderie. It keeps the students motivated in the language, to keep it moving forward.”
That opinion is shared by Jones’ strongest bowl rival—his twin brother, Dan, who teaches Ojibwemowin at Fond du Lac Community and Tribal College in Cloquet, Minnesota. (Dan Jones is on sabbatical this year, so the team is being taught by Tara DuPuis.)
Dan, whose team won twice, said the college bowl bloomed from the popularity of the high school version, sponsored by the Minnesota Indian Education Association. High school competitions occur throughout the year.
“These high school students were graduating, and there was nothing at the college level for them,” Dan said of the bowl. “It provides a motivation to really study. It instills a pride in their heritage. It really makes it a viable subject when they study their history and language and culture, then use it outside of the classroom.”
The Jones twins both grew up speaking Ojibwe in their Ontario home. They came to language instruction naturally. “My mother was a language instructor for a long time,” Dan said.
The outside attempt once was to suppress, not teach, the language. Dennis recalls being “strapped” for speaking Ojibwemowin at their residential elementary school. “The drum, the eagle feather was all part of the devil’s instrument,” he said children were told. The threat didn’t take. “It made me want to be more Indian.”
As to the usual Jones competition, Dennis said, as any brother might, “I enjoy beating him.”
“It’s the battle of the Minnesota Twins,” joked Dan, making a play off the state’s baseball team.
Those two teams are strong. “It’s usually between the University of Minnesota and Fond du Lac,” said Michelle Goose of last year’s U of M team, which narrowly defeated Fond du Lac. “We get really excited when somebody thinks they know the word.”
Students from all participating colleges and universities will enjoy their own friendly competition this year and a day of sharing meals and chatting in Ojibwemowin.
“It’s just all so interesting,” Goose said of the language. “How words can have more than one meaning. It all depends on the context.”
The main goal, of course, is to carry a life-long commitment to the language. That is what Goose, who graduated with psychology and American Indian studies degrees, has. “I’m hoping that I can start speaking more, talking to elders, just trying use it more every day.”
The Ojibwe Language Quiz Bowl will be held April 16 from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. in the Sateren Auditorium, Music Hall at Augsburg College, Minneapolis.