Bahweting School Teaches Ojibwe Language, Culture and Traditions

Bahweting School Teaches Ojibwe Language, Culture and Traditions

Brenda Austin

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – When you walk down the halls of the Joseph K. Lumsden Bahweting Anishnabe Public School Academy (JKL), it looks much the same as any other small town school. But as the end of the school year approaches and the smell of cedar, sage and sweet grass hangs in the air, the kids are eagerly awaiting the end of the school year powwow. Held every June before school is officially out for the year, the powwow allows the kids to practice the many dance steps they learned in culture class and gives them the opportunity to speak their traditional language with elders and family members.

Anishinaabe tradition and culture are a part of everyday life for the 470 students in grades kindergarten through eight. The school opened its doors in 1994 as a tribal school sponsored by the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and in 1995 was chartered by Northern Michigan University as a public school academy.

More than half the students attending JKL are Sault Tribe members. In addition to the state mandated curriculum, students learn about Ojibwe culture, traditions and language. They make and race snow snakes during the winter months, listen to traditional storytelling, learn powwow dances and participate in drum and dance socials to celebrate the end of each marking period.

As the ground dries up and tribal elders and local farmers begin planting their crops, preparation also begins for the end of the school year powwow. An emcee announces the festivities, a veteran is invited to carry a staff, a giveaway is held and family and friends gather as kids dance around the school drum—Ogimaa-minisinoo (Peacekeeper)—and the student drummers.

Michele Wellman-Teeple, language and culture teacher for grades K-5, said, “Our culture is part of the reason this school is here. Many Native children in this area were not having success in the public schools; here Anishinaabe culture and language are part of their everyday learning experience. Kids gain knowledge of mainstream cultures and can see that Anishinaabe people share some of the same values—but we have a different way of approaching and expressing those teachings.”

“Our school is here to help a group of students who have a strong cultural background express and enjoy themselves—and not feel they have anything to hide, said School Superintendent Su Palmer. “It is not just the students; it is also the adults we are educating. Our teachers are building a culture in our kids, Native or non-Native.”

In addition to the drum and dance socials, each new month is celebrated with an opening—a gathering in the school gym where each class presents what that month’s teaching means to them; sometimes in the form of a poem, skit or with a song. Monthly teachings are one of the values of the Seven Grandfathers—wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility and truth.

“Because of the society we live in, I look at it as equally important to respect all cultures, not just our own,” said Chris Gordon, culture, language, physical education teacher and academic services professional. “In my opinion, JKL is building a more tolerant and respectful community towards different cultures, beliefs and ideas of how people live.”

“Research shows how important it is for children to connect to their roots and to who they are,” Director of Curriculum and Instruction Carolyn Dale said. “Statistically, children embrace their culture when they are young, move away from it in middle and high school and as adults come back to it. With the foundation we are building at JKL, there will be something for them to come back to—it makes sense because of the circular nature of our culture.”

In a place called Bahweting—meaning the gathering place, Anishinaabe families celebrate their culture, traditions and language and find strength in each other while continuing to pass on an ancient way of life to future generations. A celebration of that life—the jiingtamog—or powwow, is a kaleidoscope of colors, laughter, drumming, traditional medicines, snow cones and people of all cultures and skin colors. It also marks the beginning of a much anticipated summer break.

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