Gagwe-gikendamaawiziwin competition helps strengthen language skills

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

Students from across the Rainy River District took part in a fun competition meant to test their knowledge of Anishinaabemowin and showcase just how far language revitalization efforts have come in the region.

Seven Generations Education Institute (SGEI) played host to the Gagwe-gikendamaawiziwin language competition on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. The competition, also known as Quest for Knowledge, takes place annually, allowing students from area schools across different boards and grade levels to come together to show off what they have learned of the language in class and at home. It also helps to generate more excitement among participants in continuing to learn and apply the language in their every day lives. It also serves as a testament to ongoing efforts to keep the language alive and healthy, adding more and more individuals every year who are able to read, write and even converse in Anishinaabemowin.

This year’s event was overseen by SGEI Anishinaabemowin coordinator and instructor Robert Horton, as well as Emma Bruyere, the co-director of the event and a former participant in the competition. Horton and Bruyere explained that the event has been an annual tradition that has been taking place for more than 20 years, and has evolved from its earliest days as a way of testing the knowledge of local community names, elders and history.

“It started more than 20 years ago and it’s an initiative to bring language learners together with first language speakers, second language speakers and for them to showcase their knowledge, what they’re learning and have a friendly competition,” Horton explained.

“When it started it was mainly focused on community names, who the leaders were, history and a little bit of language. Over the past eight or nine years it’s really transformed into being just the language.”

Bruyere said the day’s competition is broken down into several different games or activities that teams from the area schools take turns playing in order to collect points. At the end of the day, the team with the most points across all the activities is deemed the winner. Bruyere said the games are meant to echo some of the language curriculukm students would be learning in school, and so test their knowledge on adding prefixes and suffixes to root words, applying verbs, and correlating Anishinaabemowin words with simple images though a game similar to Pictionary.

“We learn how to put together words and do presentations and how to just speak fluently,” Bruyere explained.

“And that’s what all the games are broken up into. It includes off the bat knowledge of simple things like action words and animals, just common words that we use and things we see around us every day. We try to practice those so we can apply them in our everyday knowledge.”

Coming from the elementary school system, Bruyere said that being able to participate in the competition in her middle school days grew an appreciation of the language among her and her friends who participated, leading to them beginning to use the language more and more in their everyday lives. She also said the event helps to build bridges between different groups of students and open them up to new friendships.

“Obviously, kids love competition,” she said.

Students from First Nation schools, the Rainy River District School Board and the Northwest Catholic District School Board turned out to Seven Generations Education Institute on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, to take part in the annual Gagwegikendamaawiziwin language competition, which tasked them with playing several fun and competitive games to test their knowledge of Anishinaabemowin and to help keep the language thriving. – Ken Kellar photo

“It brings out the best in us and it opens up kids to more socialization. A lot of kids tend to stick to themselves, but as soon as they get here today they’re playing with their team, they’re talking to kids from other schools, they’re talking to the adults around and it’s really nice. Even with the trophy aspect and everything, it’s a reward for just showing your knowledge, and it makes you feel, I guess, Recognized, because we learn our language but a lot of times we aren’t using it in everyday school and math class, things like that. So when we actually have events like this, that are forcing us to bring it out and use it and then we get the rewards, it’s going to push us to keep going, to keep coming and to keep using it outside of events like this.”

Bruyere credits her time participating in the Gagwe-gikendamaawiziwin competitions as one of the motivators behind her choosing to pursue language studies in post-secondary. In this way, it helps to reinforce the idea that exposing youth to Anishinaabemowin plays a direct role into producing more speakers who will then continue to speak and teach others the language, helping to keep it alive, healthy and relevant for years to come.

Indeed, Horton noted that one of the key aspects of keeping a language alive is ensuring it remains relevant to those speaking it. In the day and age of social media and the smartphone, a language that doesn’t have accessible and useful words for those kinds of concepts isn’t one that is likely to be used as much by younger speakers. One of the day’s activities directly tied into that idea, with participating teams being given a term like “social media” and then being asked to come up with a translated Anishinaabemowin equivalent.

Horton said that while the Gagwe-gikendamaawiziwin competition is currently a local program, they envision it as being something that can be spread to other areas and languages across the country and beyond as a way for more language speakers to not only strengthen their own skills, but to teach and bring others into learning their language as well.

“As these initiatives grow, [bringing the program to other parts of Canada and the world] is right around the corner,” Horton said.

“What people have really discovered is that every individual, no matter what background we come from, we all have different learning styles. In here, we’re supporting the visual aspect, the spoken, the auditory, the kinesthetic, the creative, the media, as a means of supporting as many of those types of learning as possible. And that’s something that I think is right around the corner, is just providing a resource to others who would be interested, regardless of what language it is.”