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David Aubid

University of Minnesota, Duluth, instructor David "Niib" Aubid uses storytelling to teach his students the Ojibwe language.

Storytelling in the lesson plan

UMD faculty member uses storytelling to give Ojibwe language meaning

May 26, 2006

There are more than 500 distinct American Indian nations in the United States, and each has its own language and history, as well as its sacred places and rituals. Yet, many share a common tradition: storytelling. At the University of Minnesota, Duluth, (UMD) David Aubid uses narrative stories to teach the Ojibwe language and American Indian history.

"American Indian societies rely on oral teachings as a vital part of their identity," says Aubid, an Ojibwe language instructor in UMD's Department of American Indian Studies. Aubid, who also goes by his American Indian name "Niib," has gained renown as a storyteller and frequently travels to regional events and classrooms to tell dozens of Ojibwe stories.

In his University classes, students have the opportunity to select an Ojibwe word to represent themselves (for conversation purposes) and are encouraged to speak Ojibwe to each other. In many of the class periods, Aubid tells a story.

"Ojibwe words are easier to learn in a context," he says. "You've got to use them to bring them to life. Memorizing isn't the best way to learn. Hearing words illustrate a story has much more meaning."

Oijbwe is one of nearly 40 foreign languages taught at the University of Minnesota. Recently, the U hosted World Languages Day to promote 20 of those languages and to encourage high school students in Minnesota to pursue or acquire a second language. Additionally, the U offers a bachelor of arts in American Indian Studies. The program, available to students on the Duluth and Twin Cities campuses, comprises coursework to promote the understanding of tribal cultures.

The Ojibwe language is the mother tongue of the Ojibwe people--the third-largest group of Native Americans in the United States, numbering more than 100,000 across the north from Michigan to Montana. In 2003, about 200 scholars from the United States and Canada gathered on the Twin Cities campus for the first Minnesota Indigenous Language Symposium. The event focused on Ojibwe and Dakota language revitalization initiatives within Minnesota and its neighboring states. Both languages are seriously threatened.

The stories Aubid tells are not only rich in historical context and cultural meaning, they are embedded with moral values, says Katie Nickolay, a senior psychology and American Indian Studies major. For instance, a story illustrating the complicated rituals involved in killing and eating an animal may lead to an important lesson in respecting nature and the concept of give and take.

"The Ojibwe have great respect for all living things," explains Aubid. "It's in the words. Animals and plants aren't natural resources to be exploited. Everything alive has a spirit.... [and] making an offering to the spirits before taking anything from the environment is part of that give-and-take. [Respect for all living things is] fundamental to Ojibwe culture, and [that principle] comes out over and over in Ojibwe stories."

Ojibwe stories and teachings should not be trivialized by referring to them as myths or fables, says Aubid. "I call them living legends," he adds, and he continues the tradition of storytelling for many reasons. Stories teach lessons, strengthen cultural ties, entertain, and keep history alive, he explains. And his students would miss it if he didn't.

"He teaches us more than just how to put words together," says Molly Cummings, a sophomore majoring in psychology. "He teaches us to respect the language and the past."

Aubid uses technology, like PowerPoint programs, to enhance his storytelling. "Adapting living legends to technology is important in order to bring them into the 21st century and beyond," he says.

Today, Minnesota's Native languages are being spoken fluently by only a few Native people, most of them elderly. "Without the Ojibwe language, the culture is lost and Ojibwe people become mere descendents of Indians, with little to differentiate themselves from non-Indians," said Anton Treuer, author of Living Our Languages: Ojibwe Tales and Oral Histories, at the indigenous language symposium. "Language and tradition combine to make culture. Indian people need both to survive."

And University of Minnesota faculty members, like Aubid, are making sure nothing gets lost.

"One word can tell a story," he says.

Edited from a story by Cheryl Reitan and David Lislegard.

Further reading: A sampling of American Indian-specific programs or research projects at the U Dedicated to the Native American Good medicine Native American nursing science bridge program