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Our Neighbors...Dan Jones and Family

Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College Ojibwe language instructor Dan Jones (right) discusses the upcoming final exam with students (from left) Jeremy Wilson, Ernie Strandberg (seated), Kevin Leibeck and Willow Johnson. Strandberg, at age 82, is the oldest student in Jones' classes and Johnson, 16, a student in the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School High School Options Program, is the youngest. Wendy Johnson/wjohnson@pinejournal.com1 / 3
Dan Jones, an instructor at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, works in the language studio with his mother, Nancy Jones, who is one of the most renowned authorities in the Ojibwe language. Wendy Johnson/wjohnson@pinejournal.com2 / 3
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For Dan Jones, family means two things -- his tightly knit family of origin that hails from the Treaty 3 area near Fort Frances, Ontario, and, in a broader sense, those with whom he shares a cultural bond as part of the Ojibwe language community. Both have been indelibly intertwined throughout his lifetime, and he is proud to have played a role in keeping his native heritage and culture alive.

Jones is a faculty member at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, where he has been highly instrumental in developing and sustaining the Ojibwe language curriculum at the college. He is the first to admit that he hasn't done it alone.

"My mother [Nancy Jones] has made a name for herself in the state of Minnesota as one of the leading experts in the Ojibwe language," he explained. "Language instructors from other colleges know her name really well, and when they get stumped with anything, they say, 'Call Nancy!' She knows almost every word there is in our language."

In fact, Nancy was on hand at FDLTCC all last week to work with Dr. John Nichols, a leading linguist from the University of Minnesota, in developing a new edition of a dictionary of the Ojibwe language. Nichols spent time researching Nancy's vast knowledge of the language and recording her pronunciation of the words as part of the online version of the dictionary.

"When you see the words written, you have no idea how to pronounce them, but now you can go online and hear them," said Dan. "That's how language is first acquired -- through hearing it. A dictionary can only give you verbs and nouns, but you have to put it together yourself. That's where we hear the oral fluency come in."

Nancy is gratified that she has been able to pass on the language to her family and countless others.

"Our people aren't idling anymore. We're speaking it," said Nancy. "We have a movement afoot called, 'Idle No More,' and it's going all over. It started with a couple of ladies who were fighting for our rights to education."

Nancy's knowledge of her native language goes back to birth. Born not far from where she currently lives, her family spoke nothing but Ojibwe. She married her husband at the age of 13 and had the first of their eight children by the time Nancy reached the age of 15 and the last by the time she was 35. The family lived in the wilderness area of the reservation, and the children were sent away to residential school when they reached the age of 5.

Dan remembers well his experience at residential school.

"We were chastised if we spoke Ojibwe," he recalled. "They wanted to eradicate it from our vocabulary entirely. Prior to that, we would go out on the trap line and all we heard was Ojibwe all day. We were required to stay there for the whole school year and not see our parents. It was traumatic on both sides. I remember the loneliness, but somehow we adjusted."

Eventually, Nancy learned English from her children.

"I just listened to my children when they came home from school," she admitted. "I observed what they were doing as they spoke, and that's how I picked it up."

When the residential schools were terminated, the family moved closer to the highway leading to Thunder Bay so the children could catch the bus to school. At the time the youngest daughter went off to school, Nancy ended up going, too, becoming the Ojibwe language teacher at the community school in Mine Center, Ontario, where she taught for 20 years. Though she had no formal teaching education at the time, she said she had what it took to teach the language.

"Every mother is a teacher inside the home," she said. "When I went in there, I didn't have a degree in anything, just my language."

As she was teaching, she went to school for four years during the summertime so she could get her teaching degree.

"I had lots of friends who helped me, and that's why I feel so glad about helping with the language now," she said. "I know what it means to receive help, and I feel very honored to be asked."

Much of Nancy's passion rubbed off on her family. Following graduation, Dan was hired at Rainy River Community College by the late Jack Briggs, who later became the first president at FDLTCC. Briggs later hired Dan's twin brother Dennis, and eventually their mother as well.

"That's where we started developing the Ojibwe language curriculum that formed the basis for where we are today," said Dan. "The program was so successful that it expanded to Mesabi Community and Technical College in Virginia."

Then, Jack Briggs hired Dan for the second time -- at FDLTCC.

"He was a big influence in my life and my career decision," said Dan. "He was a very dynamic man."

Dan has now been working in the Minnesota community college system for 28 years, and his brother Dennis went on to work in the Ojibwe Language Department at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.

In the course of his work, Dennis developed the idea of Ojibwe language immersion programs, a concept that Dan has helped bring to FDLTCC as well.

"You walk in and there's nothing spoken but Ojibwe," Dan explained. "My students who have taken two years of the language go on and immerse themselves in that program. We hire one of our tutors and four or five elders to come to our language house here on campus and they're immersed in the language for three weeks."

Another concept that came from Dennis's program in Minneapolis is the idea of a "language table."

"We felt we needed to create a program where students can learn and be exposed to the language outside the classroom," explained Dan. "What we developed was language tables, held once a week where you meet for two hours. The way we draw people in is through a potluck supper. We refer to it as, 'Will work for food.'"

Locally, the program is held on Thursday nights at the Fond du Lac Tribal Center, usually drawing anywhere from six to 11 participants.

"We simply invite folks to come in and expose themselves to the language," explained Dan. "We're trying to give people an opportunity for the people to hear the language spoken. It's open to everyone who has a desire to learn the language."

A more recent development has been the Jack Briggs Memorial Quiz Bowl Contest. Seven or eight high schools across Minnesota gather and compete with each other in Ojibwe language tournaments, culminating in the Quiz Bowl at the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School and moderated by Dan, with some 32 teams competing.

About seven years ago, Dan and Professor Valerie Tanner from St. Scholastica got together and decided they were going to come up with an Ojibwe language competition at the college level as well, and this year FDLTCC became the state champions. Dan's daughter, Shawna, was part of the team.

"It's typically my brother's students at the University of Minnesota and FDLTCC that battle back and forth between first and second place every year," said Dan. "I think that makes a statement that says we have good students who have good instruction and can compete with anyone in the state."

Dan's wife, also an Ojibwe language instructor, took over Nancy's teaching post when she retired nine years ago, and their oldest son Jason is now the coordinator of all of the language instructors in the Fort Frances district and develops curriculum as well. Jason and Nancy have also collaborated to produce a program on YouTube called, "Ask An Elder," where people from the Internet community send in questions which are answered via videos on YouTube.

"People these days are so distracted," commented Nancy. "I think that's part of the reason young people are not really listening with all the stuff that goes on -- computers, Facebook, cell phones. I think we should be working toward putting some things [about our language] on Facebook, YouTube or iPods, so they can be exposed to it through the media they're using."

Locally, FDLTCC offers four Ojibwe language courses to students, but there are also a number of cultural courses related to it as well.

"The final exam in the Language 4 class is just you and me sitting down one-on-one for an hour and speaking in nothing but Ojibwe," said Dan.

The college now also has a dedicated language center, funded by a $380,000 grant.

"It's a dream that we developed, and when they asked me to put it on paper what I wanted, this is what I envisioned," said Dan. "Actually, it's better than I envisioned!"

The center has both classroom and studio space, and language resource people come from as far away as Minneapolis and Canada just to use it.

The success stories coming out of the FDLTCC language program are many. One of them is Marcus Ammesmaki, who was part of the language team that won the state championship this year.

"Dan first got me involved in a language immersion camp," said Ammesmaki from the school language lab last week. "The first time I went, there were kids my age speaking the language, and it was really intimidating. But I muddled through it and stuck with it. Now I do something with our language every day."

Ammesmaki said he recalls how, back in the 1990s, there were many fluent speakers of the Ojibwe language on the reservation. By the early 2000s, however, he said much of that influence had gone away.

"It hurt to know that my generation and my parents' generation didn't take care of it enough to keep it around," he said. "Now there are 10 or more fluent speakers on our reservation once again and we're working really hard to learn how people talked. I also do it for my 3-month-old daughter. I only speak to her in the Ojibwe language, and I'm going to try really hard to make it easier for her to learn those things."

Anna Fellegy, vice president for academic affairs at FDLTCC, is enthusiastic about the school's language program and the people who run and participate in it.

"With what we do there, we are able to let the resources we have here at the college shine," she said. "We have perhaps one of the strongest language resources in the region. Through those resources, we have access to these outer layers of terrific expertise like Nancy Jones, as well as other native-tongued speakers of Ojibwe, which is also very unique -- to be dealing with first language speakers."

To Dan Jones and his family, passing along the Ojibwe language is simply part of their heritage.

"I like passing on what was passed on to me," commented Nancy. "It's not mine to keep. And we have to do it now. Who knows how long it would be around otherwise?"

"I think that's the mentality of the culture," added Dan, "that this language was given to us by the Creator, not for us to hoard or keep to ourselves, but to share it with everybody."