New storytelling space another tool in efforts to reclaim language

By Ken Kellar
Local Journalism Initiative reporter

A new space is going into Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre to continue to celebrate Indigenous culture and traditions while also helping promote language reclamation.

Currently in the works, a new reading and storytelling area is being added to the main floor of the centre that will feature books in Anishinaabemowin, as well as room for elders and storytellers to share their skills and knowledge with those who spend time at the mounds. According to Kayleigh Speirs, the centre’s curator and administration manager, the new space has been a few years in the making and helps to supplement programming the centre has already been doing.

“Basically a couple of years ago now, we received some funding from Weechi-it-te-win,” she explained.

“The funding is specifically for language revitalization. Before the pandemic we had been running weekly Anishinaabemowin language classes for band members and community members, and then of course we had to shut that down once COVID hit. With the ongoing restrictions we haven’t been able to pick it back up, so one of the things we decided to do with that funding is create a storytelling corner in one of our exhibit spaces.”

The storytelling area is going into a spot near one of the centre’s first exhibit, and the location is ideal as it is near a number of large windows that will let plenty of natural light in. While the space isn’t completed yet, Speirs said they are installing a number of bookshelves and chairs, turning the area into a spot the whole family can enjoy, in addition to potentially using it for some additional programming at the centre.

Of course, as the funding is contingent on language reclamation, Speirs stressed there will plenty of material in the space to help those interested in immersing themselves in their traditional language.

“We already have quite a few books in Anishinaabemowin,” she said.

“Some of them were provided to us by Waking Up Ojibwe, who are fantastic. In addition to providing us with some books, they also have a ton of language resources online that are free to download, for any families looking for those language resources. We’ll be utilizing and printing some of those off to have on site, so we’ll have games and activities in the language.”

There are also plans to have regular recurring storytelling events once the centre has reopened to the public, inviting staff or community elders a chance to read some of the books on hand, or tell other stories. There is also a chance that the centre will hold a virtual storytelling event in the future, though plans for that haven’t been finalized.

Speirs noted that language revitalization efforts are crucial, and it’s a benefit that many areas of northwestern Ontario have some kind of program or initiative that aims to help preserve and promote the language among First Nation people. Speirs noted that the centre has worked with both the area school boards and given input to help them develop or implement Anishinaabemowin content for their students. That learning can be done in classrooms, and also on site when situations allow for such activities.

“In a typical year pretty much every school would be bringing groups out here for different programming,” she said.

“A couple of things we’re hoping to do going forward, depending on funding, is create a lot more curriculum based programming. Hopefully a lot of that will focus on language and will match up with some of the stuff students are doing, but we definitely work closely whenever possible with the school boards, and will continue to do so.”

Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre is developing a new reading and storytelling space to revitalize Anishinaabemowin language skills. – Facebook photo

The reading and storytelling space at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung is just the latest step in the road to language reclamation and revitalization, particularly in northwestern Ontario. As with many traditional languages, there is a risk of losing it to the passage of time as more people who speak Anishinaabemowin in their day to day life die, but thanks to the combined efforts of advocates and educators like those at the centre or working within school boards, there is a greater chance now than ever before that the language will continue to prosper and be taught to people who can bring it into their homes and communities and keep it alive. The new reading space is, again, just one more tool in the toolbox, but Speirs is hopeful it will do what it is intended to do once the public can return to the centre.

“I think it will be pretty impactful,” Speirs said.

“We’re still figuring out a traditional name for it in the language, something along the lines of storytelling corner or maybe we’ll even invoke something to do with grandparents, but we’re really excited for people to be able to come and experience it when we’re able to open.”